This is part one of a 2 post short series on identifying the factors that enhance or decrease the sense of depth in your images, and putting them to work in practice in your own photography.
The photograph above combines a number of the factors leading to the illusion of depth in a flat object. Intuitively, it’s quite easy to produce such an image. But how often do you review images and find some more 3D than you had anticipated and others far more flat?
After I wrote about fast lenses and how those can hinder the sense of depth in a photograph while beautifying it, frequent contributor Lad Sessions approached me privately to discuss the topic and it was soon decided that we’d work together to try to decypher the various depth cues that we, photographers, can use in our images to convey / accentuate / diminish the sense of 3D in order to make them realistic, abstract or impressionistic.
Plenty of articles have been written and videos posted to describe this, but most of those we have found limit themselves to the repetition of non-substantiated platitudes. So, without embarking on a research project, we would try to base our writing on more factual information and illustrate all of it using our own images to prove the points we would make.
This is part one, in which I describe simple principles that can be thought of and applied in the field, while shooting. Part two will be written by Lad following his inimitably more academic style, to expand on the points described here and further subdivide each into more refined ideas.
So let’s get straight into it.
Do not feel cheated. It seems obvious that depth needs to be present in the scene being photographed in order for the resulting image to convey a sense of depth. But, as you’ll see later, you can work to flatten a 3D scene or to bring 3D to a flat one.
I’m only stating the obvious that starting with a 3D scene makes it easier to recreate that feeling in the photograph.
Here are more examples:
I have chosen those images deliberately to dispel the myth that converging lines are what convey depth. The road at blue hour, the runner image at top, and the Narrows bridge all use converging lines. But the cliffs and the boat above don’t.
This is where this category becomes less trivial.
One crucial factor in the perception of depth is continuity in the recession of the scene. Hence the inclusion of ‘continuous’ in the section title. Converging lines are compositional tools (see below). They simply happen to coincide with continuity. If that continuity is broken and relative size cues between the various elements in the frames get jumbled, all sense of depth gets lost. In fact, this is how abstract images are made.
In the photograph above, you have no information about the relative distance of the tulip and the background. Continuity is broken as there are only two planes in this image and no information about the distance between them is available.
In a less extreme and artificial example, how about this scene from nature, in Japan ?
If you take your time, you will be able to identify and count the number of planes in this photograph, but it is certainly not obvious from the start and the image looks much flatter than if it had been taken from an angle that doesn’t overlap everything like this.
Or this, from Tuscany. There are two planes here, with nothing in between, so the photograph – while pretty – has less 3D than it could given the actual depth of the scene (at least, depth of field helps here, unlike in the similar but blurry tulip photo above).
Below, continuity is also broken. Instead of a continuous progression of depth from my feet to the horizon, we have a series of planes. However, each of them has a clearly identifiable place in the frame (unlike above) and our understanding of the relative sizes of objects allows us to reconstruct the 3D in the scene.
Let’s dig deeper into that idea of layering.
When continuity of depth is present in the scene, as below, it’s hard – though possible – to mess up the depth in the final image.
When discontinuity arises due to the position of the photographer respective to the scene, layering comes into play. Layering occurs when the scene contains a finite number of discrete layers of depth rather than one continuous progression. See below.
Planes can convey 3D efficiently. In fact much of the cinema industry hinges around this.
But this requires careful lighting or attention to natural light.
Light can either flatten an image by melting all the planes together, as below. Or it can delineate each plane very distinctly to provide a continuous-like experience of depth as further below (and as in most cinema movie interior scenes).
The image above contains many planes and you can intellectually count them and infer the distance of the background. But visually, the image seems flat because the light falling on each plane is identical and boring.
Below, on the other hand, a succession of shadow, light and shadow again structures the image into a far more palpable depth. The converging lines of the path also guide the eye to the gates in the background (composition).
Colour can do the same as contrast. And this is very often what you’ll see in cine movies. Below, we have a fairly flat scene with 4 planes, and flat-ish light. But the colour contrast between the worker, the dull main train, the reflected train and the background give a clear perception of the various layers and make the image less flat that it otherwise would seem.
This brings me to composition, which is the photographer’s way of suggesting a story. The only way, possibly? Composition defines the visual strengths of the various components of an image, hence their power dynamics in the story.
In a centric composition, we are saying: “this story is all about this thing/person, at the center of the image”. By using the rule of thirds, we are saying “this important thing/person is included in this larger context (the rest of the frame)”
In the image above, the strong colour of the worker’s clothes draws our attention to him, walking out of the frame, suggesting more space than is seen in this flat scene. The dull central train seems lifeless, but the reflected train brings more interest, life and depth to the image. Maybe the worker is going to do something on that blue train? Light, and (even more so) colours are creating 3D through separation here.
Of course, none of that goes through our mind during the few milliseconds the exposure takes. It happens intuitively because we have trained our mind to react automatically to such things. In post processing, however, we can accentuate the impact by increasing colour contrast, for example. You can see how much clarity and saturation I added to the trousers. It doesn’t look very natural and I’d never do that to a fashion shoot. But here, those trousers make the story and create the realistic separation in the image.
In composition, we can suggest a story and we can – separately – suggest depth.
The photograph above, while pretty, fails at both. There is no story whatsoever, just an exposition of a very pretty scene before me. And, while there is some separation between the dark green trees in the front and the lit red butte in the middle ground, the rest of the image – where most of the depth lies – is lost in uniform light and colour that melts everything into one single plane. I still like it 😉 I’m just saying it could have more 3D.
To successfully suggest 3D in composition, you need to emphasize the differences of lighting that falls on the various layers of the scene. In a studio, you can control the light to create that layering from scratch. Outdoors, you need to be receptive to it and emphasize it through your compositions.
Moreover, composition can be used to guide the eye from a foreground to a background. This journey is an intellectual cue suggesting actual depth to the brain. This is what converging lines do.
Composition can act in other ways to convey depth.
The photographer can include elements that inform on scale at various locations. The people above (middle pictures) are examples that tell us how tall the buildings are. And the people sitting down in the geometric mono photograph above (2 planes and some continuity) is another. Incorporating such known elements in various layers can tell us how far these are, relative to one another.
Since you can be sentenced to up to two thirds of an eternity in Hell if you photograph people, in France, I have few such examples to provide. But the first picture above (with the wooden ceiling) gives you an idea, with the receding crowd on the right.
There’s also the rule of thirds. Yup, I said it 😉 😉 😉
Center the subject, and the photograph becomes all about it. Place the subject off-center, you really need a good reason to do so, and you share the meaning of the photograph with something else. Above, it is shared with that glorious grassy alley on the other side of the lake, in London. Had the statue been superimposed on that alley, both dead center, the depth would probably have collapsed. Here, the two seem to echo in 3D.
Below, the “escape route” (hole in the hedge) at top left is only noticed because it balances the statue’s offset. This makes your eye shift from one to the other and perceive depth where there is not much in evidence, and what little is there is blurred (’cause it’s a noisy background)
Finally, you can use doorways, windows or other frames to artificially layer what would otherwise be a scene with constant lighting, making it easier to convey depth.
There may be many more contributions of composition to the sense of depth in film and photography. Those are what I could come up with, looking at my own photographs.
Of course, gear plays a role in the final results. Some lenses are known to emphasize 3D, while others draw a flatter image of the world. Which you prefer depends entirely on your personal tastes, there is no right or wrong choice here.
Portrait lenses don’t necessarily emphasize depth. Some do, but many stick to a more flatter-ing look 😉
This is a generalisation, and I haven’t found any conclusive scientific evidence to back my claims! But I’m guessing high-resolution lenses, vignetting and proper contrast yield great 3D pop.
The photograph above was made using the “standard” Sony – Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 that came with early Sony A7x models. It’s a lovely lens, but not one particularly great for 3D. Many ingredients for an abyssal image are present, but it feels more like a cartoon drawing than a 3D dive (and my PP pushes it that way too). It’s still one of my fave pics of the trip, the looks suits it. Depth isn’t everything, in photography.
Below is a much flatter scene, shot as a panorama with a 90mm X1D lens, probably the most 3D of the 5 I own for that camera. The resulting image has far more pop, in spite of it being a (mostly) flat wall.
However, it was necessary to “massage” this image slightly. Out of camera, X1D images tend to look quite flat. A huge amount of dynamic range and detail is preserved by the default settings, so global or local contrast must be added to breathe life into photies (if that’s the look you are going for).
Other cameras, particularly those with small sensors, tend to produce more contrasty and exciting images by default.
Back to lenses. One of the all-time greats for 3D pop is the ZM Distagon 1.4/35 ZM (Audrey). For reasons I don’t completely understand, this lens seems to create 3D where there really isn’t a lot to begin with, and to emphasize what was already there.
Long story short: if you enjoy 3D in your images, get a lens that does 3D well 🙂 And forget about lab rat measurements.
But if you still want some quantitative backing, I suggest you check the measured 40 lp/mm lines on the lens’s MTF curves. The 10lp/mm will show you how contrasty an image will look with that lens. The 20lp/mm will tell you how sharp coarse detail will look. A lens with high 20 lp/mm curves will look very sharp in small prints and internet pics. The 40lp/mm is all about the finer detail that you do not actually see in anything but large prints yet gives you very distinct textures, tonal subtlety and 3D. At least I believe so. The Otus 28, below, is another great performer, also by Zeiss, and even more expensive than Audrey (and worth every cent).
Then, of course, there’s focal length to consider. The wide angle above (combined with the angled view and receding lines) creates a far more immersive photograph than the longer lens and square-on framing below.
Finally, aperture. As mentioned elsewhere, if all detail is lost in the background, so is the feeling of depth. This can compound the discontinuity between planes even where there is discernible detail in the background.
It’s quite frequent, particularly with good modern glass, to see portraits made against a background that’s all nice and creamy and yet feeling quite flat. Often, the main subject is heavily delineated and the background is lost in bokeh. When the transition between sharp and soft is too abrupt, there seems to be an invisible barrier between subject and its surroundings that kills the 3D effect.
You can get similar results in landscapes when photographing a close foreground set against a distant background, say from the top of a cliff. But this also happens in amateur portraits using modern lenses optimised for sharpness and cappuccino bokeh. Compare those lenses to the old portrait lenses that favoured a very gradual shift from sharp to blurry and you get a very flat overall feeling in the resulting images (see the tulip image at the top of this page). Maintain some depth of field in your portraits if you want to maintain a sense of 3D, or use older lens designs that don’t cut off so abruptly.
All of the above can be summed up in an advanced conclusion :
In other words, find real-life depth and do your best to preserve it in the photographic process.
Choosing the wrong depth of field is one way of destroying 3D. Harsh post-processing is another.
Now, I’m (very) guilty of both those photographic no-nos. Sometimes, the image just isn’t about depth. Sometimes it’s abstract, or purely emotional. Or just botched … 😉
But I believe (again, this is unsubstantiated) that shallow depth of field can increase the feeling of 3D by increasing the difference in sharpness between the subject and the other planes, up to the point where excessive blur wipes out too much detail for this difference to continue to meaningfully exist. The miniature effect created by tilt lenses (and PP) exploits this.
Too little DoF or too much can eliminate that sense of falling into an image, even when the original scene has great depth to it.
Here’s the TLDR; Being bad, I put it right at the end 😉 But it can also sum up all the rest.
Creating depth in an image comes from understanding what makes you feel depth in the first place, and accentuating that!
Here, we have multiple planes, backlighting that highlights all the various layers, continuity with the river and buildings, haze diffusing details in the background. The image is more or less SOOC. Making this excessively soft or harsh would only have hurt the 3D. I’ve no idea what the lens is, but my guess would be the excellent Loxia 25. Not the best at creating 3D out of thin air, but very very true to life.
I think it’s important not to confuse 3D POP, mostly produced by the lens and correct f/stop, with realistic depth. The latter is what makes an image believable. In cinema, the success of the film rests on suspension of disbelief. Images can be toned, coloured and otherwise tortured, but they need to convey a realistic sense of depth (and of highlights, but that’s a topic for another day). In photography we have more of a choice between one, the other, both or neither.
In the second post in this series, Lad will further explore this in more refined ways. And, one day, I will try to work on how to combine those factors. For now, what do you think?
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