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3 Ways To Add Depth To A Photograph

A photography instructor long ago told me that photographic technique is often about trying to recreate the three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium. As such, we’re always looking for ways to create the appearance of depth and dimension in our images. Here are three ways to add depth to a photograph.

Use Backlight To Add Depth To A Photograph

One of the simplest ways to add to the appearance of depth is to use a backlight. This is illumination that falls on the subject from behind—such as a hair light. The hint of separation provided by this kind of backlighting adds to the illusion of depth. It can be accomplished simply by placing the subject such that the sun is at their back and using a strobe or reflector to bounce light into the resulting silhouetted face. In this way, sun from behind will add a glow to the top of the head and emphasize the depth and dimension of the three-dimensional world being photographed.

In a more controlled lighting situation indoors or in the studio, for instance, this hair light or edge light can be added by placing another light source behind the subject and out of frame—either above the frame in the case of a hair light or to the side for more of an edge light approach. Many studio shooters use strip light softboxes for this kind of edge lighting, while a gridded spotlight can also add just a bit of sparkle in a more isolated area. No matter how it’s accomplished, the illusion of depth is most definitely enhanced with the addition of a backlight.

3 Ways To Add Depth To A Photograph

Camera Settings And Subject Placement

For those who want to maximize depth in other ways, it can be done through some simple choices when it comes to camera settings and subject placement. A shallow depth of field, for instance, helps separate the subject from the background. This is accomplished by shooting with a wider aperture such as ƒ/2. The same scene photographed with the same lens at a smaller aperture such as, say, ƒ/8 or ƒ/11, will have a much sharper background and the appearance of a flat plane containing both subject and background. With a wide aperture, though, the subject is sharp and the background falls out of focus to provide a visual hint about the depth in the scene.

This effect is amplified, of course, if the subject isn’t positioned close to background elements. In the example shown here, the subject is first standing immediately in front of the windows and photographed with a medium ƒ/8 aperture and the entirety of the scene is sharp. This does nothing to separate the subject from the background, nor does it even clue the viewer to what parts of the scene are most important. But in the next shot, the subject has moved just a foot or so forward to gain a bit of distance between himself and the background windows. The switch from ƒ/8 to ƒ/1.8 also enhances the depth effect by minimizing depth of field and further separating the smiling face from the distracting background.

3 Ways To Add Depth To A Photograph

Shoot Through A Foreground Object

Another way to add to the illusion of depth is to shoot through or past a foreground object near to the camera. In this manner, not only will the out-of-focus background appear distant behind the subject, but the visible foreground elements will further add to the feeling of three-dimensionality. It’s a simple trick but highly effective! It’s one reason why out-of-focus foreground elements are particularly in vogue in advertising: they add to the feeling of capturing a moment of real life—which is, of course, unfolding in 3D.

These simple techniques are worth their weight in gold when it comes to creating the appearance of depth in a photograph and putting the focus on a single center of interest.

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