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7 Ways to Create Depth and Dimensionality in Your Photos

A guide to creating depth in your photos

We experience the world in three dimensions, yet photography is a two-dimensional medium. Therefore, if you want to create images that appear natural and that capture the world as you see it, it’s important to produce the illusion of three-dimensionality in your photos.

I’ll add here that depth and dimensionality are desirable photographic qualities, even if your goal isn’t to capture natural-looking shots! Depth helps draw the viewer into your images and keeps them engaged as their eyes move around the frame. In fact, photographers in a variety of genres and across two centuries have worked hard to consistently create that illusion of depth, so it’s certainly a good idea to learn to do the same in your own photos.

In this article, I present seven powerful techniques to help you convey a stronger sense of depth in your photos. Of course, not every technique will work for every scene, but if you memorize these approaches, and you pay careful attention to the example photos I share, you’ll come away with a toolbox of compositional approaches that you can use to handle pretty much every photographic scenario you encounter!

1. Use leading lines

One of the best ways to convey depth in photography is also the easiest: Work with a wide-angle lens and include lines, generally referred to as leading lines, that move from the bottom of the frame to the top.

(Do you have to use a wide-angle lens? Not really, but incorporating leading lines is a lot easier when you work with a focal length capable of including both the horizon and the ground beneath your feet in the same frame. At the very least, for the best results, you’ll want to keep your lens at around 70mm and below.)

The leading line technique is mainly used in landscape and architectural photos, but you can also incorporate leading lines into portraits, street shots, and more. The lines don’t have to be obvious. For instance, take a look at this photo:

how to add depth and dimension in photography seascape long exposure
Here, I’ve used the leading line technique to create depth, but there are no obvious lines that move from the bottom of the frame to the top. Instead, the rocks merely suggest lines, and that’s enough!

The rocks form natural lines that lead the eye from the foreground to the island on the horizon:

how to add depth and dimension in photography leading lines
See what I mean? The rocks aren’t explicit lines, but they do the same work.

This photo has a similarly subtle set of leading lines:

plains with mountains
Leading lines don’t have to be obvious! In fact, including more subtle leading lines can result in a more organic, natural image.

The waterways in the middle distance lead the eye to the mountains. But the lines are meandering, rather than straight, which helps give the image a more organic feel – one that fits well with the theme of the landscape.

2. Use linear perspective

Linear perspective is a method of creating depth that hearkens way back to Renaissance painting, but it works just as well for photography.

The idea is to choose a scene with clear horizontal lines, such as a series of buildings. Then choose a composition that allows those horizontal lines to converge toward a point on the horizon.

Take a look at this next example, and note how your eye moves through the shot. Pay attention to the overall sense of depth, and think about how the shot might feel if there were no buildings:

how to add depth and dimension in photography with perspective

Can you experience the depth? The buildings form a series of converging lines that move toward a single point on the horizon, and the result is a wonderful sense of three-dimensionality.

I’ve added an overlay so you can see how it works:

how to add depth and dimension in composition with perspective

This approach is especially easy to apply when photographing cityscape and street scenes, but it can also work for landscape photography (if you’re photographing a path in the forest or a tight cave, for instance). And portrait photographers sometimes include converging lines in the background of their images to give that extra sense of three-dimensionality.

3. Include (and connect) the foreground, midground, and background

Most photographers are familiar with the rule of thirds, but when it comes to conveying a sense of depth, I like to break the photo up into a different set of thirds:

The foreground, midground, and background.

You see, having three zones in the image will help create a sense of depth and three-dimensionality. One caveat is that the zones should be distinct but linked; in other words, you should find a way to connect each zone while pulling the viewer’s eye from foreground to background.

Leading lines are one way of linking the three zones, but lines are not always present in a scene. So when there are no lines to be found, you’ll need to create that connection with some other compositional element.

Often, this simply means including something interesting in the foreground. For example, in the photo below, I adjusted my framing to include buildings in the background, a concrete jetty in the midground, and the edge of another jetty in the foreground:

how to add depth and dimension in composition long exposure seascape

Beginners might think that the jetty in the bottom left-hand corner was a mistake, but I assure you that it was intentional; I included it to enhance the sense of depth, and to create that link from foreground to midground. (And if you look carefully, you’ll see a small crack in the concrete that subtly pushes the eye toward the jetty in the midground, which acts as an additional link.)

Here’s another example:

seascape with a clear foreground for depth

Do you see how adding the rocks to the foreground creates a composition with three distinct zones (foreground, middle ground, and background)? The rocks point subtly toward the water, creating a nice link, plus they’re texturally similar to the cliffs in the background, which adds yet another link!

It helps that the wide-angle lens makes the rocks seem quite large in comparison to the distant cliffs.

4. Use aerial perspective

Another technique for conveying a sense of depth – one that become especially popular in recent forms of landscape photography – is aerial (or atmospheric) perspective.

It might sound complex, but aerial perspective is something you experience every day, where the atmospheric conditions make objects in the distance appear hazy.

Of course, this won’t work for all scenes, and you’ll be heavily limited by the environmental conditions. But if you see haze in the distance, I highly recommend you try to find a way to include it in your composition.

In the photo below, you can see that the trees in the distance on the left side are obscured by atmospheric haze, which adds depth:

an aerial perspective on a building

And the depth is further enhanced by the converging lines formed by the walls. So the two techniques actually work together to give increased depth to the final shot:

how to add depth and dimension in composition - aerial perspective and lines

It’s also worth noting that you can increase this sense of depth by adding haze in post-processing. Just be careful not to go overboard and create an unnatural result!

5. Shoot through a foreground object

The techniques I’ve shared above work well with wide-angle lenses, but are less helpful if you’re using telephoto lenses. Since telephoto lenses crop the scene, it’s difficult to include leading lines or a layered foreground-midground-background structure within the frame.

That said, there are still some techniques you can use with telephoto lenses to create a sense of depth. One method is to shoot through something that is between you and the subject (such as grass, twigs, or windows). The idea is to identify your main subject, then adjust your position until an element in the near foreground comes into the frame. If you use a wider aperture, you can often blur the foreground element so that it’s still visible but not especially distracting.

In the photo below, the subject is the setting sun. I shot through the grass (and I actually focused on the grass, throwing the sun slightly out of focus) to add a sense of depth to what otherwise would have been a very flat image.

shooting through grasses at sunset

You can also use this technique with portraits. I created the portrait below by shooting through the branches of a tree:

shooting through a tree for a portrait

If you prefer to capture photos that are sharp throughout (i.e., have a deep depth of field), you can still try this approach! For instance, the frame-within-a-frame technique involves finding a frame (such as a doorway or a window) in the foreground or midground, then taking photos that include both the framing element and interesting elements in the distance.

So the next time you’re shooting a subject with a telephoto lens, look around for objects to shoot through. I guarantee you’ll find an object or two – which you can then use to create depth!

6. Use selective focus

Selective focus is a technique where you deliberately set a wide aperture and focus on the subject (and create a blurry background in the process). It’s especially effective with portraits, as the blur helps separate the model from the background; in fact, I’d say that nearly all professional portrait shooters rely on selective focus to create depth on a regular basis.

I captured this next portrait at f/2 with the lens focused on the model’s eyes:

how to add depth and dimension in photography with selective focus

Do you see how the blurry background and the sharp subject together create a sense of three-dimensionality? That’s the power of selective focus!

And note that you don’t need to restrict yourself to portraits when using this technique; it also works great when photographing pets, birds, other wildlife, flowers, and so much more!

7. Add color contrast

Here’s a question to ask yourself: What happens to colors in the background when you use a selective-focus technique (as discussed in the previous tip)?

You see, when the background is out of focus, colors merge into each other. And if you arrange your colors carefully, you can achieve a nice contrast between the colors in the background and those on the subject.

What does this do?

It conveys depth!

For example, check out the colors in this portrait:

Depth and composition portrait with subtle colors

The background is nearly white, whereas the man’s sweater and hair are a darker red; this separates him from the background.

In fact, you can take this idea to its extreme by using an off-camera flash fitted with an orange gel. When you do this, the model will be lit by orange light (from the gelled flash), but the background will be lit by colder ambient light.

(This technique works well at dusk when the ambient light has a natural blue color.)

Ultimately, you’ll get a nice contrast between the warmer model and the cooler background. For the example below, the model was lit by a single speedlight fitted with a 60 cm softbox and an orange gel. Here, the result is pretty intense, but it certainly helps illustrate the way that color contrast can create depth:

Depth and composition portrait with lots of color

Go add depth to your photos!

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be well-prepared to create photos with plenty of depth and dimensionality! So go out and practice some of the techniques I’ve discussed. See whether they improve your images.

Bear in mind that you don’t always need to create the illusion of depth to capture a great image. But in many cases, the more depth, the better!

Now over to you:

What other ideas do you have for creating and adding depth in photography? Please let us know in the comments below!

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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