Ways to create landscape photographs that make the viewer feel immersed in the scene.

Translating a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional photograph with any sense of depth can be a challenge. In this feature we look at a few tried-and-proven techniques that can help you to achieve this objective, as well as strategies that are available in post-capture editing to enhance impressions of depth.

Unless you know what parameters to manipulate, it’s hard to decide which parts of an image to work on and how to adjust them.

This picture combines multiple depth cues, among them aerial perspective, leading lines, receding objects and differences in contrast and saturation between the foreground and background.

Depth cues in two-dimensional pictures

Linear perspective, represented by the convergence of parallel lines with distance, was one of the first depth cues to be recognised by artists way back in the early 15th century. The longer the parallel lines and the more distant the vanishing point where they converge, the greater the apparent depth in the scene.

Objects of similar size that become smaller with increasing distance from the lens provide another easily-recognised depth cue. While your brain knows the individual vehicles in a stream of cars on a road are probably quite similar in size, when it sees them shrinking progressively, this is interpreted as depth in the scene.

Interestingly, your brain can apply corrections to counteract visual incongruities. For example, when a dog in the foreground of a picture appears much larger than a horse in the distance, you will automatically see this difference as due to distance, rather than seeing a very large dog and miniature horse on a two-dimensional field.

Aerial perspective is another powerful depth cue. When shooting landscapes from a high viewpoint the distant peaks become lighter in tone as well as much less detailed, contrasty and colourful. This happens as a result of haze in the atmosphere. Your brain perceives these tonal cues as due to distance.

Elements that are positioned in the top third of the frame also tend to be judged as more distant than those at the bottom. This kind of depth cue can be created by simply shifting the horizon upwards.

Shooting techniques

The following techniques will give you the most promising images to start your quest for a perceivable sense of depth.

  1. Shoot with a wide-angle lens

Wide-angle lenses are normally preferred for landscape photography because they make objects in the distance seem further away than they actually are, while at the same time making objects close to the lens more dominant. This relationship increases with the larger angle of view of the lens to add a greater sense of depth to the resulting images.

When framing shots, shooting from a viewpoint slightly above or below eye level, while using a wide-angle lens and stopping down to at least f/8, will help to maximise the sense of depth, even with modestly wide-angle lenses.

Compare these two pictures, taken from the same viewpoint. Which one conveys a greater sense of depth, the one taken with the ultra-wide-angle lens or the normal wide-angle photo?

  1. Use leading lines and tones

Lines that lead the viewer’s eye into the scene from the foreground towards the horizon will naturally suggest a feeling of depth. They can be obvious lines, like roads, paths or railway tracks that recede into the distance – or a line of trees leading to the horizon – or more subtle lines like the S curve formed by a river or stream winding through the landscape.

It doesn’t matter whether the lines are continuous or broken, as long as the viewer’s eye is directed into the picture and towards the horizon.

Leading lines can be created with any element in the scene that directs the viewer’s eyes into the picture.

Slight vignetting (edge and corner darkening) can draw the viewer’s eyes into the scene, providing further depth cues to enhance those already present through leading lines.

Slight vignetting encourages the viewer’s eyes into the centre of the frame where the leading lines carry the view to the horizon.

  1. Contrast foreground and background.

Visual contrasts between large foreground objects and small distant objects will add a sense of depth to your images. This impression can be strengthened at the editing stage by subtle tonal adjustments.

Large, sharply rendered boulders in the foreground contrast with the smaller people behind them in the middle distance and the more hazy, distant horizon to add a sense of depth to this scene.

  1. Capitalise on aerial perspective.

Aerial perspective is created when mist or haze diffuses tones and softens edges of distant subjects, providing a noticeable contrast between the background and the sharply-rendered, more saturated areas in the foreground. To take advantage of this phenomenon you may need to wait for the right weather conditions or take your camera to a higher elevation where you can look over the scene to distant hills or mountain ridges. Include a normally-lit object in the foreground to highlight the contrast with the distant parts of the scene.

  1. Divide the frame into zones.

Splitting the frame into foreground, middle ground and background when framing the shot and making sure there’s something interesting in each zone that links to the adjacent zones can help to create an impression of depth. It works by directing the viewer’s gaze into the scene.

Best results are obtained when the horizon is placed towards the top of the frame. You can combine this strategy with any of the others listed above to tie the structural elements in the image together to create a sense of depth.

Red lines divide this image into three zones, which are linked by leading lines to enhance depth perception by drawing the viewer’s eyes towards the distant horizon near the top of the frame. There is something interesting to look at in all three zones, inviting the viewer to explore the image.

Editing Techniques

There are many ways in which you can edit images to create an impression of depth. Some involve replicating effects such as vignetting and aerial perspective – or emphasising these effects when they’re already present in the image. Others add subtle adjustments to contrast and/or saturation to simulate differences that our eyes pick up. The easiest to apply are shown below.

This frame grab shows how vignetting can be introduced when converting a raw file with Adobe Camera Raw.

Vignetting is easiest to replicate when converting raw files into editable formats. You simply go to the lens corrections page in your conversion software and adjust the vignetting slider (circled in red in the illustration below) until the edges and corners of the frame have been darkened to your satisfaction.

These illustrations show how to create a separate layer from the foreground to which adjustments can be applied.

Aerial perspective can be enhanced by creating a separate layer from the closest section of an image and increasing its contrast and saturation, while lightening and decreasing the contrast in the background, as shown in the illustration below. Boosting vibrance and saturation and brightening the highlights in the area with a sweep of the dodging brush finalises the adjustments.

The edited image after contrast and saturation adjustments plus foreground lightening with the dodging brush.

For subjects in which depth cues are minimal or absent, selecting and copying the lower two thirds of the image frame allows you to boost saturation and vibrance to produce an illusion of depth. This technique works best with images that are tonally warm overall, like the example shown below.

If you see a border between the adjusted front section and the more distant parts of the picture, simply use the eraser brush with a large, soft setting to reduce the tonal differences between foreground and background.

Before and after pictures show the difference that can be made by increasing the saturation in the foreground of a shot where depth cues are minimal.

Article by Margaret Brown –  see Margaret’s photography pocket guides  

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 83

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Also see: Ten Tips for Better Landscape Photography

And: Landscape Photography pocket guide