Composition Basics: That's Deep

Create the illusion of depth in landscape photography

One of the creative problems inherent in all photographs is that they're flat.

Photographs exist in only two dimensions--they have height and width, but no depth. While a landscape may spread across miles, your photographs are only as deep as the paper they're printed on. The lack of a third dimension means it's up to you to create a believable illusion of distance in your photographs.

The reason that we see distance in everyday life is because humans have what is called "binocular vision" or two separate images overlapping that creates the depth illusion. The ability to sense distance can have some useful applications--like knowing when to stop walking before you walk off the end of a pier or how far to reach to scratch your knee.


Combine Depth Cues: In this shot of a military cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida I combined linear perspective and shrinking subject sizes (the headstones) to enhance the third dimension. Read on to find out how you can do this!

Almost since the beginning of photography creative minds have tried to find clever ways to bring the third dimension into still photos and they've had some great successes. If you've ever looked at antique stereo cards using a Stereoscope, you know just how real the 3-D illusion can be: You feel as if you can reach in a pluck an apple from a tree. As a kid I was addicted to my View-Master 3D viewer and I just couldn't get enough of those round picture wheels. Mickey Mouse and Pluto really were hiding inside that viewer!


Follow the Lines: I found this scene while driving through the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. I wanted to show the great expanse of space in the west; The highway running across the frame from near to far did the trick.
Creating Depth

While you can't get such intense a three-dimensional experience from an ordinary photograph, there are some visual tricks (also known as "depth cues") you can exploit to enhance the sensation of distance in your photographs. Knowing how depth is created is particularly useful in landscape photographs because one of the things you're trying to relate is the physical space involved.

Linear Perspective

One of the simplest and most direct ways to create a sense of distance in a landscape is to include a leading line, a cue that artists refer to as linear perspective. Lines work best when they start near the front edge of the image and go to the far horizon (as in my shot of the desert highway) and conclude at a single point ("one point" perspective). Highways, fences, rivers, and telephone poles are all things that can take the eye on a deep journey into your image.

Lines are like a siren call to the eye and they beg the eye to follow. It's hard to look at a photograph that includes a strong lead-in line and not trace its path--it's the visual equivalent of eating just one potato chip--tough to do!


Shrinking subject: Even in relatively compact areas you can exaggerate space. Here I positioned myself so that the tractors appear to shrink as they get farther from the camera.
Shrinking Sizes

Using our common knowledge of object sizes is another great way to trick the brain into sensing distance. Since we all know approximately how big a person is, for example, if that person appears as a tiny dot on a beach, we assume there is a great amount of space between the lens and the subject. Similarly, by contrasting objects of known size--a large person near the camera and a tiny lighthouse in the distance--you are telling the viewer that there is space between the two. Everyone knows that the lighthouse is really much larger than the person.

You can also use shrinking sizes to imply distance by having objects of similar size stretching into the distance. When you're sitting in a line of cars waiting to pay the morning toll, the car at the far end of the line seems a lot smaller than the one directly in front of you. We know, of course, that all of the cars are roughly the same size and they're not really shrinking, but the distance makes them appear to be getting smaller.


The haze is a hint: Look at how the layers of this shot of Lake Winnepesauke in New Hampshire (shot from a roadside pull-off) go from dark to light as they go further into the distance. The brain perceives this lighting as distance.
Aerial Perspective

If you've ever stood at a scenic overlook gazing out at a mountain range you've probably noticed that the rows of receding peaks seem to get lighter as they get farther away. That's a depth cue called aerial perspective. The buildup of haze (or mist or fog) as the peaks get more distant causes the more distant ones to look lighter; the brain interprets this tone change as distance.

The best time to find haze or fog is early or late in the day or just before or after a storm. And remember, while wide-angle lenses are generally better for exaggerating distance in a normal landscape, when it comes to aerial perspective, telephoto lenses (105mm or longer) compress the ever--lightening layers of a subject and further exaggerate the feeling of space. It's one time when a long lens actually helps create rather than eliminate depth.

High horizons: Placing your subject very high in the frame--especially when the horizon is included--exaggerates the foreground space.

Upward Dislocation

Whenever a particular subject is higher in the frame than a nearby one, it appears to us to be farther away. That's just another trick of our vision system that automatically assumes that things higher in the frame are closer to the horizon and, therefore, farther away. You can exploit this cue easily in a landscape by simply placing one object--such as the sailboat in my shot here--very high in the frame.

Another way to do this, of course, is to aim the lens down to include more foreground space in the frame. By emphasizing the foreground in a beach scene, for example, you create the impression that the beach is very long and the distance to the horizon even greater.

Using Depth

Not all landscapes require a sense of distance to be more dramatic or more realistic. But whenever the perception of distance is important in a landscape, knowing which cues are available and how to exploit them is a very useful tool.

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