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I recently wrote about using layers in composition. One of the reasons we use layers is to add depth to our photos. Today I thought I’d explore this idea a little further and look at some more ways you can add depth to your compositions and create a sense of space.
Adding depth to photos helps them seem more three dimensional and realistic. If you’re new to this idea it may sound intimidating. But the good news is that it’s not as difficult as you might think. All it needs is an understanding of the way your lenses work combined with an appreciation of some of the finer points of photographic composition.
By the way, I’ve already explored some ideas for adding depth to your photos in our earlier tutorial Four Ways To Add Depth To Photos. I recommend you give it a read after you’ve finished this one.
1. Add depth by exploiting perspective
One of the easiest ways to add a sense of depth to your photos is to use a wide-angle lens. This is most relevant in genres where the use of wide-angle lenses is most common, such as landscape and documentary photography.
What is a wide-angle lens?
If you have an 18-55mm kit lens (on an APS-C camera) then any focal length less than around 24mm qualifies as a wide-angle. On a full-frame camera a focal length 35mm or less is considered a wide-angle. On a Micro Four-thirds camera you’re looking at focal lengths of under 17mm.
Wide-angle lenses are idea for subjects like landscape and documentary photography because of the effect they have on perspective.
Wide-angles make objects in the distance look further away than they really are, and objects that are closer to lens look larger. As a result this adds a natural sense of depth to your compositions.
Note that for this to work properly you have to be prepared to get close to either your subject or something of interest in the foreground. Your proximity to part of the subject is just as important as focal length to creating this sense of perspective.
Perspective in action
Here three photos that show how it works. All were taken from the same position in the Spanish town of Tapia de Casariego.
Here’s the first, made with a 35mm lens (on an APS-C camera).
As you can see it’s what’s known as a long exposure photo as I used a shutter speed of 125 seconds to blur the water. The photo has a minimal composition that lacks depth. This was intentional and shows one way to approach composing a subject like this.
Here’s the next photo, made on a different evening, this time with a 56mm lens.
The longer focal length brings the lighthouses even closer. But this photo has a greater sense of depth than the previous one, despite the longer focal length, because you can see the hills and lights in the distance (these were obscured by cloud in the previous photo).
Here’s the final photo, made with a wide-angle 14mm lens.
Now you can see what I’m talking about! Using a wide-angle lens let me include part of the jetty I was standing on in the frame. It also made the pier in the distance look much smaller than it is in reality (and enabled me to get more of it in the frame).
These photos are interesting examples because they show how focal length, composition and weather conditions combine to create a sense of depth in the photo. Sometimes the atmospheric conditions obscure depth (as in the first photo) and you might choose to work with that and create a photo that deliberately lacks visual cues that indicate depth and dimension.
Or you can use a wide-angle lens and include some foreground interest to create a sense of depth. This is the technique I used in the third photo.
2. Add depth using aerial perspective
In the previous example you saw that one of the reasons the first photo lacked a sense of depth (compared with the second one) is that the hills and lights in the distance were hidden by cloud.
Let’s turn that idea on its head and learn how you can use adverse weather to your advantage when it comes to creating depth. You can use haze, fog or even rain to add depth to your photos by exploiting what’s called aerial perspective.
This is when atmospheric conditions make objects in the distance look hazy or otherwise hard to see.
The key to making it work is to use a wide-angle lens and include some foreground interest that isn’t affected by the haze or mist. This sets up a natural contrast with the distant parts of the scene.
In the photo below (taken with a 14mm lens in the same town as the others, but from a different viewpoint) a combination of a warm summer evening and sea spray from breaking waves created lots of atmospheric haze that obscured the cliffs in the distance.
The composition is helped by the stone jetty making a powerful diagonal line that takes the viewer’s eye through the photo. Both ideas work together to create depth.
Here’s another example, taken in thick sea fog with an 18mm lens. The photo needed something in the foreground to help create depth. The conveniently parked red Mercedes was perfect.
3. Add depth to photos using color
If we go back to the second photo we can see another interesting idea in action.
Part of the reason the photo has depth is because of the interplay between warm and cool colors.
This is how it works. Warm colors (such as red, yellow and orange) give the impression that they are closer to the viewer than cool colors (like blue and purple).
This idea has applications in other areas of life as well. For example, in garden design you can plant red, yellow and orange colored flowers at the front of a small garden and blue and purple flowers at the back to make it seem larger than it really is.
In this photo the jetties are a warm brown color and the hill and sky in the distance are dark blue. The hill is also hazy, which shows aerial perspective in action. So in this photo we have two design elements that help convey depth working together – color and aerial perspective.
This is an idea you can use when shooting during the golden hour, and the warm light from the sun illuminates the subject, which is framed by a blue sky.
Here are a couple of photos that use this principle.
Tying it all together
It’s important to understand that these three ideas don’t work in isolation. They work best when they come together with other design elements that create a sense of depth in your photos.
So next time you’re out taking photos, give some thought about how you can use these ideas. You’ll be amazed at the improvement in the composition of your photos when you put them into action.