This month, let’s focus on creating depth in photographs by shooting images that incorporate a minimum of three distinct planes: foreground, midground, and background. Does it seem simple? It can be, but there are a number of ways you can approach this for particularly captivating results. Consider the following tips (and combinations thereof!):
1. Shoot Wide Open
Set your aperture to a low f/stop. As most photographers know, this very shallow depth of field powerfully separates the subject from the background, but modify this common approach to portraiture by incorporating a third plane: bring a foreground element into the frame. Now, when you focus on your subject in the midground, you’ve separated out at least three layers of depth: the defocused element in the foreground, the primary subject in the midground, and the creamy bokeh of the background.
2. Utilize a wide angle lens
Whereas a telephoto lens appears to compress the planes within the frame, a wide angle lens exaggerates them; this is due to a combination of differences in field of view and the distance from which subjects are captured with each. The perspective distortion of a lens that is 35mm or wider on a full frame camera causes elements in the foreground to appear disproportionately large relative to the elements in the background . This exaggeration of size helps to emphasize the depth and distinction between foreground, midground, and background.
3. Incorporate a vanishing point
A vanishing point is one of the most common illustrations of perspective. It is not only a fantastic depth cue but also a compelling design element. Visually, the space between two parallel lines diminishes as the lines recede, drawing the eye with them as they run towards the horizon and ultimately appear to converge at a vanishing point. By photographing elements situated along these parallel lines, you can define different planes within the image (e.g., foreground where the lines are furthest apart, background where they converge, midground at locations in between).
4. Recognize repetition
Building on the prior tip, incorporating a series of identical elements that progress from foreground to background (or are placed selectively at the foreground, midground, and background) help to distinguish the planes insofar as the size of the elements decreases as the eye is drawn into the frame. Imagine, for example, a series of pews in a church, houses lining a neighborhood street, or posts in a fenced pasture; all of these provide visual cues as to distance and depth — appearing largest in the foreground and smallest in the background.
5. Utilize foreground framing
A common compositional device, framing involves using one or more elements to surround the primary subject and help direct the eye to it. For the purposes of establishing depth, this is really a variation on tip #1 . A standard composition contains a subject and a background; whether or not you shoot wide open, bringing a frame into the foreground (such as shooting through a window or doorway) not only adds that extra layer of depth but also helps to direct and draw the eye in.
6. Seek out atmospheric diffusion
Inclement weather can provide a wonderful setting for images with great depth. Fog, snow, and rain — in addition to smoke, ash, smog, sand, and dust – add particles to the air that scatter the light and obscure the clarity of the atmosphere. As a result, elements in the foreground have the greatest clarity, deepest tonality, most contrast, and highest saturation; as the eye progress towards the midground and into the background, objects become softer, lighter, reduced contrast, and lower saturation. In these situations of wet or dry haze, placing your subject in the foreground can be an effective way to beautifully isolate it as the midground and background gradually fall away, plane by plane, into the haze.
7. Shoot through glass.
A glass surface provides a full physical divide between planes. Let the glass function as your midground, and incorporate elements on either side to represent the foreground (in front of the glass) and background (beyond the glass). Bear in mind that if your primary subject will appear in the background (behind the pane of glass), it may help to focus manually; reflections, smudges, and similar on the surface of the glass can trip up your camera’s autofocus system. Need more tips on shooting through glass or particularly intrigued by this idea? Head back into the Creativity Exercise archives, and check out “Shooting through a Glass Window or Door” from September 2012!
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.