5 Tips to Create More Depth in Your Landscape Images

 

The other day I was watching a movie in 3D. Quite an experience and one that I know many of you have experienced yourself. But it begs the question: How do we get a 3D look when working in a 2D medium like photography? Let’s take a look at five ways we can accomplish this.

 

1. Think about adding as many layers to your scene as possible.

Perhaps the easiest and most universally thought of technique is adding layers to your composition. This means thinking not only of foreground, midground, and background, but as many layers as possible of midground.


Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, California

In the image above, which I shot after waiting out a blizzard at Yosemite’s Tunnel View, I was able to add many layers. It starts with the row of snow-covered foreground pines and works through the valley, the famous granite monoliths (and Bridalveil Fall), and up through the warmly-lit clouds.

Had I gone with a more telephoto view, I would have eliminated much of the depth in this scene. My simple motto is this: If you have a great background, challenge yourself to find a complementary foreground; if you have a great foreground, challenge yourself to find a complementary background.

 

2. Allow shadowing to direct your viewer’s eye and create depth.

The human eye is naturally drawn to the brighter portions of an image. Having this knowledge allows you to direct your viewer’s eye via the placement of shadows and highlights within your composition.

As a side benefit, shadowing also creates the illusion of depth in an image.


Southern Santa Clara Valley, Diablo Mountain Range, California

In this image that I captured of a super moon rising, I had the sun over my shoulder and it was still lighting the distant hillside. The light was rather flat and undramatic.

Suffice it to say, the image looked flat—no shadows. But we can aid in the movement of the eye and the creation of depth by using an old darkroom trick—burning and dodging the image.

I am not a big fan of Photoshop’s burn and dodge tools; rather, I create my own by going to Layer > New > Layer. I change the blend mode to Overlay and use the brush with my color swatch (found at bottom of tool palette) set to white for dodging, and I change the blend mode to Soft Light and use the brush with my color swatch set to black for burning.

 

If you record these steps as an Action, you can simply bring them up at any step of your processing.

For the image above, I burned-down areas of the image nearer the edges, but tried to do so in a manner that would look consistent with nature’s light (moving clouds often do this for you). But on this evening, I had a blank-blue sky. A little digital darkroom magic did the trick!

 

3. Shoot with a wide-angle lens and move close to your foreground.

After many years of teaching photo workshops, a common problem I encounter with many of my students is that they don’t properly use their wide-angle lenses in a manner that allows for depth creation.

I find that most do indeed get a grand view scene (pretty hard not to), but they all but forget about capturing a foreground that draws the viewer’s eye as a starting point for the composition.


Garrapata State Park, Big Sur Coast, California

In this image of wild calla lilies at Garrapata State Park along the Big Sur coast, I got close with my wide-angle and made sure the line of lilies led my viewer’s eye into the frame. You can also see that I burned-down my edges to hold the eye in the frame.

I waited until after sunset on a fairly clear spring evening and was rewarded with not only calm conditions, but also a warm sky that served as another layer of depth!

 

4. Allow lines and patterns to lead your viewer’s eye through the frame.

Nature is ripe with patterns and lines. In fact, I try to reduce my scene to lines, patterns and geometrical shapes while composing. Instead of viewing literal elements, I’m looking for connections of shapes and lines.


North of Hollister, Santa Clara Valley, California

With this image of a country lane through a grove of eucalyptus trees, I decided to take a low perspective (I had the camera about two feet off the ground on a tripod). This allowed the country lane to become a line that drew the eye through the frame.

The repeating patterns of eucalyptus trees also aided in guiding the eye through the frame, and a soft bank of fog lit by a low-rising sun (camera right) gave the scene some much needed contrast and depth; it also provided a painterly feel.

 

5. Create pathways to allow your viewer’s eye to move through the scene.

My final tip involves what I call “creating pathways.”  I want to encourage my viewer’s eye to move through the frame and not run into a roadblock. This is another technique that can allow for the creation of depth in your image.


Bishop Creek, Bishops Canyon, Eastern Sierra, California

This image would not be as effective if there was not the creek to open up the center and right half of the frame and allow the eye to move. The left side provides the anchor and the colorful punch.

What was important for this image’s success was the placement of my foreground. Had I moved the camera higher, I could have added a bit more of the creek (as the flowers and grasses would have been moved lower in the scene). Conversely, had I moved lower, I would have covered more of the creek by pushing the flowers and grasses higher.

The way I determined my camera’s placement was to first get it off the tripod and simply move up and down while looking through the viewfinder. Once I found the composition I wanted, I then set the tripod’s height to match my vision.