Creating Depth and Backlighting

In photography we’re forced to work within a 2D medium and as such it can become difficult to convey depth, in Landscape photography this can be achieved through the use of three separate planes, foreground, mid, and background or through the use of converging parallel lines, these principles are applicable to photographs of people but require a specific geographical condition.

Foreground, Midground, Background.

This principle can be found a large majority of landscape images, and film, it works by playing with the eye’s ability to judge objects based on size. You can add this to a photograph by placing the subject in a composition which already has two planes and uses your subject as the third. The subject will in most cases take up either the foreground or midground, I have found keeping the subject as the midground generally allows for a tighter composition, but if shooting wider you may just as easily be able to include two planes behind them.

Hint: for very tight and simple compositions I will generally place the subject in a garden as can be found in the above image. Some people will have biases against out of focus foreground elements, so you can close down your aperture to bring these in focus. I don’t mind it though, I was quite impressed by it’s use by Max Wanger and took to using it myself from then.

Converging Parallels.

Although it sounds rather paradoxical, as you look between two parallel lines the distance between them will appear to shrink in size the further away they are. You can find parallel lines anywhere with aisles or the like. Supermarkets, libraries, vineyards and tunnels work great.

But what if we already have a composition?

So how do we add depth to an image without having to rely on compositional principles? There are a number of ways you can manipulate your camera and lighting to increase the amount of depth in your image.

Manipulating Depth of Field

This one’s a no brainier, I’m not gonna explain how to open up an aperture and shorten depth of field, I will however brush over why it looks so appealing.

The eye does work somewhat similarly to a camera lens, it has an Iris (ie. Aperture) which it opens and closes to let in more or less light, and to a degree the eye has it’s own depth of field and need to focus, an example of this is if you hold your finger close to your eye and try to look to what’s behind it without moving your eye, which should be out of focus.

As such a shallow depth of field can do one of two things, in lesser doses it can give the eye a cue that what it’s seeing is out of focus because it’s further away than it may, in fact be. (As in the below photo).

Conversely, as in the photo to the right, in more extreme cases a shallow depth of field can flatten the background completely, creating two distinct planes, the subject and the background which the subject can be seen to “pop” out of.

Manipulating Lighting

One fairly easy way to squeeze an extra plane into your image is through back or side lighting. This highlights your subject and brings them forward from the background.

When back-lighting, blowing out highlights isn’t as much of a taboo as it is in other positions, and so it’s possible to just slave a flash behind you or off to the side and leave it be so long as it’s brighter than the key. When lighting from the side you’ll only want to go about a stop above or the subject may become nuclear.

Back-lighting seems to have taken over from short depth of field as my go-to technique for adding depth to an image as of late, and is appearing in near all of my images with over one light. I’ve found it also works well great in studio settings as not only will you generally have lights to spare, but it adds some much needed depth if using a plain background.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia’s page on Depth Perception has a list of all the monocular cues which the eye uses to judge depth. Including Parallax, which explains the principles behind camera movement to create depth. (For examples of Parallax and Fore/mid/background look at any scene in any Michael Bay movie, his movies aren’t groundbreaking compositionally but they stick to a few principles like glue, including the use of complimentary colour schemes, Hence why every person looks orange and the skies are an intense teal).



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