Some of the most memorable photos you’ve seen make you feel part of the scene, as if you could just step into the photo. How do photographers do this? The secret is to use compositional techniques to create a sense of depth and make the photo more three dimensional and realistic. Let’s look at some ways you can do that.
1. Add depth using line
You can add depth by including lines that take the viewer’s eye through the photo, from the foreground to the background.
These can be obvious lines, like railway tracks that recede into the distance, or a line of telegraph poles leading to the horizon.
But they can also be more subtle lines, such as the S curve formed by a river or stream winding through the landscape. They can be implied lines – for example, rocks in the sea that are separated by water but together form a line that takes the eye through the frame.
It’s easier to use line to add depth to your photos when you use a wide-angle lens. Wide-angles are idea for working with lines because of the effect they have on perspective. They make objects in the distance look further away than they really are. Objects that are close to the lens look larger. As a result this naturally adds a sense of depth to your images.
You can see how it works in the photo below, taken with a zoom lens set to 25mm on a full-frame camera. The rocks in the foreground form lines that take the eye through to the island on the horizon. Using a wide-angle lens makes the island look smaller than it really is and increases the apparent distance between the island and the foreground rocks.
You can also add depth to photos made with telephoto lenses by clever use of line, combined with limited depth of field.
The incense sticks in the photo below form a line that recedes into the distance, naturally creating a sense of depth. I emphasized that by using a wide aperture and focusing on a single stick to create a clear focal point.
2. Add depth by including foreground interest
When using wide-angle lenses you should think carefully about what you include in the foreground of your compositions. The idea is to add something interesting that contributes to the overall composition without pulling too much attention from the main subject. There’s no objective way of judging this, but it becomes easier with experience.
Here’s an example of how I put this into action. I found the two wooden boats in this photo in a small bay in northern Spain. I started experimenting with the visual relationship between the two boats by using one of them as foreground interest.
As you can see, the eye moves naturally through the frame from the boat in the foreground to the orange boat in the middle distance through to the horizon. In this case the idea of using foreground interest has combined with the use of line.
You can apply this idea in a similar way by looking for ways to frame your subject. In the photo below I used a short telephoto lens to photograph the street performer, and deliberately shot through the people standing in front of me, using a wide aperture so they were out of focus. This adds an extra layer and a sense of depth to the composition.
3. Use a different rule of thirds
Most photographers are familiar with the rule of thirds. But it’s helpful in many types of photography to divide the frame into three in a different way – foreground, middle ground and background.
The idea is that each zone should have something interesting in it for people to look at. Building compositions around three distinct zones, and thinking about the way they are linked (perhaps by line), helps you create a sense of depth in your photos.
You are most likely to apply this idea when using wide-angle lenses, as they include much of the scene and give you a natural way of including all three zones.
This photo, for example, has rocks in the foreground, sea in the middle distance, and dramatic cliffs in the distance.
I’ve added lines to show how you can mentally divide the scene into three zones.
Learn more: Beyond the Rule of Thirds
4. Add depth by creating contrast between subject and background
Another way you can create a sense of depth in your photos is by creating separation between the subject and the background. Now it should be noted that this isn’t always possible, and I’ll show you why below.
But it’s something to look out for. If you can train your eye to see when there’s a clear separation between the subject, whatever that is, and the background, then you are learning to recognize a scene with strong compositional potential.
Let’s take a look at two portraits as examples.
In the first (left) you can see that there is a clear separation between the man and the background. It’s there because the man is dressed in white and the interior of the temple is black. His colorful turban also stands out from the background.
In the second portrait (right) the man has brown skin and is sitting in front of a brown rusty metal staircase. As a result there’s no clear separation between the subject (the man in the photo) and the background behind him.
I happen to like the second portrait and I don’t think that the lack of a clear separation from the background is a fault. But once you’re aware of this you can take action if you think it’s necessary.
For example, in this particular portrait I used a wide aperture (f2.8) to throw the background slightly out of focus. This is a natural way to create separation between subject and background.
If I had realized at the time that the background was a similar color to the man’s skin, and thought it important enough to do something about, I could have asked if he would mind moving somewhere else so I could make a better portrait – perhaps in front of the blue wall to his left. If you have a cooperative subject, then working the scene like this is a good way of playing around with the creative possibilities.
Learn more: How to Use Color Contrast in Composition
Tying it all together
I’ve touched on it already, but it’s important to understand that these principles don’t work in isolation. If you look closely at the photos in this article you’ll see at least two of these principles in action in each one. They work together to create a sense of depth in your photos.