Adding Depth and Context to your Images

Jenny Lake, Fall afternoon, Grand Tetons National Park, WY Canon 5DSR, 24mm, 239sec @ f/22, Lee Big Stopper

The Challenge

One challenge we as photographers have in creating images that really engage the viewer is often related to our ability to convey a sense of depth in a medium that is only two-dimensional.  That is not to say that a two-dimensional photograph cannot be effective. But often such images are intimate landscapes, or studies in patterns, lines, microcosm in nature and even some grand vistas.  But in many cases creating depth is an effective way to engage the viewer and guide them through an image, holding interest and in many ways providing context for your subject.

We actually borrow many of the same techniques artists have used for centuries in painting and drawing.  In photography while our tools to accomplish this are similar, our methodology is necessarily different because of our medium.  The photographer must arrange existing elements within the frame of a photograph in a somewhat symbiotic fashion to create a sense of depth.  This is often critical to the success of many landscape photographs.  So what are some of the techniques we should consider as we create images?

Including Foreground Element

Use of a supporting foreground element in your photograph is a favorite technique I try to use quite often.  This in part is based on my earlier days using 4×5 view camera and the influence of one of my favorite landscape photographers, David Muench, whose work I believe in part guided the development of my personal photographic style.

Blacktail Ponds Overlook, Grand Tetons National Park, WY EOS 5DSR, 24mm, ISO 200, 1/20 sec @ f/16

While a foreground element adds to the complexity of a composition, you should not pick any foreground element.  Ideally, it should help support your main subject in some way.  Also, take the time to fine tune your composition.  What I mean is consider how close you should be the any foreground object.  Sometimes I will tell a workshop student that when you initially think you are close enough, move still closer.  The closer you are the larger the object appears in relation to the background element.  This forced perspective cue helps create depth.

Don’t however forget the mid-ground.  This is another factor that supports the importance of fine tuning your composition.  Sometimes the height of your camera is vital to effectively guiding your viewer into the image.  While getting low can be quite effective in gaining a desired perspective, it also minimizes the mid-ground.  The mid-ground is often important to provide a visual progression or stepping stone toward your background element.  If you are too low, you might eliminate the mid-ground.  If too high, you may end up with too much dead space in the mid-ground, hence the importance of fine tuning.

Leading Lines

Sockeye, Newport Marina, Newport, Oregon EOS 5DSR, 16mm, ISO 400, 1/125 @f/10
Sockeye, Newport Marina, Newport, Oregon
EOS 5DSR, 16mm, ISO 400, 1/125 @f/10

I think most everyone has heard the mantra about leading lines.  When you think about it, everything in nature is made up of lines.  A meandering stream is actually comprised of two lines, one on each side of the stream.  A tree is defined by two lines, one on each edge.  Lines can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal.  Nature is replete with lines and other geometric forms.  So in the case of lines, they are often easy to find but be careful in how you use them.  To be used most effectively, they should lead the viewer into the image, and in some cases toward the main subject.  But most importantly they should support engaging the viewer to explore the image entirely.   One mistake photographers make is choosing leading lines that lead the viewer right out of the image.

Of all leading lines, the diagonal line is by far the most powerful.  They convey a sense of power and motion.  By far they are more dynamic and can give a sense of motion, either upward or downward.  When used in conjunction with vanishing point perspective they can be quite effective in directing the eye toward a certain area of the composition and providing that sense of depth.


Choice of Lens

2015_08_Yaquina Head Oregon_0036-Edit
Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Newport, Oregon EOS 5DSR, 16mm, ISO 100, 1/6 sec @ f/22

Often someone will ask me what my favorite lens is.  After the quick response “the one on my camera”, I go on to say really it is my wide-angle, particularly my 16-35 mm.  This ultra-wide angle lens is really great for emphasizing a foreground and using a small aperture to amplify the sense of depth.  So I am always looking for opportunities to pull it out of the bag.  However, often my 24-105 at the wide end is sufficient in a lion’s share of cases.

One thing to remember when using wide angles is to resist getting too much in the frame.  Often times when first getting use to wide-angle perspectives is to include far too much in the composition.  After all, by its very nature it includes more and you may have a tendency to want to include as much of the beautiful scene in front of you in the shot.  Resist this temptation.  A wide-angle lens stretches perspective making objects seem farther apart, while a telephoto will compress elements.  As such you should strive to fill the frame when using your wide-angle.


Shoot Vertical Orientation at 45° Downward Viewpoint.

Spring outflow, Alley Spring, Shannon County, Missouri EOS 5DSR, 31mm, ISO 200, 3.2 sec @ f/22
Spring outflow, Alley Spring, Shannon County, Missouri
EOS 5DSR, 31mm, ISO 200, 3.2 sec @ f/22

I really don’t mean exactly 45°.  The point though is that if you turn your camera to a vertical orientation with a wide-angle lens, tilted slightly down, you can often use this wide perspective to really maximize foreground and leading line techniques while filling the frame.  It also alters your focal plane in a way that somewhat mimics a tilt function utilized in large format cameras or modern tilt-shift lenses.  This will help get the most of your depth of field and help give prominence to a foreground element, increasing the three-dimensional feeling of the image.

Depth of Field

Appropriate depth of field is critical in landscape photography.  If you have a foreground element, taken the time to ensure your composition had a good combination of supporting elements, waited for the right moment and light, it all could be for naught if your depth of field was insufficient to provide sharpness, or apparent sharpness throughout your image.

Selecting the proper aperture and focus point is a key process in preparing to take your image, once you have determined your composition.  In fact I suggest to my workshop student that when they have decided on a composition they should first ask themselves, what aperture do I need for this shot?  Why this question first?  Well, your

Klepzig Mill, Shannon County, MO EOS 5DSR, 24mm, ISO 100, 1.6 sec @ f/22
Klepzig Mill, Shannon County, MO
EOS 5DSR, 24mm, ISO 100, 1.6 sec @ f/22

aperture governs your depth of field. So, if your shot has a prominent foreground element, for example, you know that you need a lot of depth of field to maintain near/far sharpness.  Knowing that a smaller aperture (larger f-stop number) will give you this, you decide on say, f16.  The next questions is where do I need to focus.

On the focus point, many will say focus 1/3 into the scene.  This is based on the point that when you are focused at the hyperfocal distance, your depth of field will extend from half the distance to your focal point to infinity.  Personally, while the “focus 1/3 way into the scene will work at times, I find it better to determine the closest point you must have in focus ( near part of your main foreground element)  and focus at a point twice that distance.  Now, among other things that affect the depth of field is how close you are to the foreground element.

If you are extremely close to your foreground and your background is a distant mountain, you may find that the mountain, even with an aperture of f22 may be a little soft.  However, this would likely be acceptable in most cases because with a wide-angle shot, the perspective will still provide enough apparent sharpness for the distant mountain.  But you cannot usually get away with a soft foreground element in a landscape image.

Layering and Overlapping

Mount Hood, Oregon EOS 5D Mark III, 400mm, ISO 100, .3sec @ f/11
Mount Hood, Oregon
EOS 5D Mark III, 400mm, ISO 100, .3sec @ f/11

Layering or overlapping can also aid in guiding the viewer through a scene, often encouraging one to view from bottom toward the top.  Often you see this in aerial perspective where more distant objects take on a lighter or hazier appearance with less detail.  Our mind tends to translate this as those objects being farther away, aiding in feeling of depth.

Vanishing Point

Use of vanishing points to direct the eye is somewhat related to scale.  It is a linear perspective in which the point in the distance at which objects become too small to see.  Think of railroad tracks that seem to come together in the far distance.  We often us vanishing points in

Old Cabin at Falling Springs Mill, Oregon County, MO EOS 5DSR, 46mm, ISO 200, 30 sec, @ f/22
Old Cabin at Falling Springs Mill, Oregon County, MO
EOS 5DSR, 46mm, ISO 200, 30 sec, @ f/22

photography to help direct the eye, using the diminishing scale effect.  Vanishing point perspective naturally forms a triangle, which is one reason triangle shapes in nature can act as elements to direct the viewer.

The Context

Considering some the techniques listed above, as well as others, there is additional value in adding that sense of depth and guiding the viewer through your image.  You will find that you are not merely “taking a photograph” of a tree, stream, mountain, waterfall, etc., you are adding the context to support the story or feeling you are trying to convey through your final image.





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