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We all know this problem. You take a picture of a beautiful scene but it just doesn’t turn out the way you want. Something is missing. It usually isn’t a matter of your camera or the settings you are applying. But what is it then? The question at hand is how do you get from a snapshot to an interesting, unique, and well composed photograph.
To answer this, we have to move away from the technical aspects and go more into the creative and artistic aspects of photography. You might say that this is a very subjective matter and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there are a few building blocks that will help to improve your photography and also develop your own unique visual language.
An important aspect of photography is that we want to capture a three-dimensional reality by taking a two-dimensional image. When we are out in the field, our eyes in collaboration with our brain create very complex images within split seconds. The most important factor in this context is that our eyes are constantly moving while focusing on different subjects. The focal plane is shifting with a subject in focus and everything in front or behind appearing to be blurred. This “Depth of Field” is one the most important techniques we can utilize to simulate depth and three-dimensionality.
In order to play with depth of field, we need a scene with a defined foreground and a background. Whereas the background is usually a given, a lot of images lack foreground which makes an image appear flat and boring. Choosing a defined foreground will enable us to actively compose an image and become creative.
Once you have chosen a background and a foreground you like (ideally both complementing each other), you have to find the right position for you and your camera in order to combine both for an appealing overall image. To find the right position, you should try different angles, move around, get low to the ground and don’t solely rely on your zoom. By using a large aperture (small f-stop number) and a selective focusing, we can isolate the foreground from the background by making the foreground objects sharp and the background blurry (or vice versa). This will convey a sense of depth and three-dimensionality.
This image (above) of one of the ancient tombs around Hue, Vietnam looks flat. There is no depth, no three-dimensionality and it lacks a clear composition. Because a foreground is missing, the image is too busy and distracting.
Above an image of the same subject but with a much better composition. The focus is on the eye of one of the dragons, making it our foreground. The rest of the tomb is our background, slightly blurred and nicely separated. It generates a sense of depth and also appears much calmer and structured than the first image. The viewer is being led into the picture. You can use this technique when photographing very popular places like for example the Eiffel Tower, Angkor Wat or other monuments. Instead of taking the same shot as every other tourist, experiment with different backgrounds and foregrounds, get creative, move, and I am sure you will end up with an original and authentic image.
You can also apply this technique to your people and portrait photography. It not only helps to really put emphasis on your subject, but also to incorporate some of the environment, which will help to tell a story. In the picture above, the focus is on the weary fighter, catching his breath during a fierce Khmer Boxing fight in Cambodia. We are at eye level with the fighter and again, the foreground is nicely separated from the rather blurry background. Yet, we can still see parts of the surrounding environment which is the ring and the crowd in the back. The focus however always remains on the main subject.
Of course depth of field is not the only means to create a sense of depth and three-dimensionality. The concept of leading lines is another one of those building blocks that you can apply. The viewer of a photograph usually associates diagonal lines which are leading into an image, to a vanishing point perspective. This means that objects which are farther away also appear smaller. This context automatically and unconsciously gives the viewer an impression of three-dimensionality.
As you can see in the images above, a shallow depth of field is not necessarily needed to convey that sense of depth we are looking to achieve. Here it’s all done by using a jetty as lines, which connect different layers of the picture – the image becomes much more plastic and complex.
Similarly the image above becomes three-dimensional because the pedestrian bridge is leading into the image. It also appears to become smaller and smaller as it leads into the background. This way the image has that sense of depth even without applying a low depth of field. The bridge as a leading line is connecting our different layers, the foreground and the background.
When regarding a picture, the viewer often needs a reference point in order to correctly interpret the information our two-dimensional images provide. We can do this by establishing proportions and providing a relationship in size. Often this isn’t needed as we know a lot of the subjects we are capturing. In the image above we were dealing with familiar objects like a pedestrian bridge, a street and a commercial building. It was easy to put everything into context. But a lot of times, when we are confronted with unfamiliar things, this isn’t as easy.
In the picture above is Mingun Pahtodawgyi, a temple in Mingun, Myanmar. Left unfinished, this huge construction was planned to become the world’s biggest stupa with a height of 150 meters. It is huge and impressive but the picture above somehow doesn’t manage to convey this. Just by looking at this image it is impossible to gauge the sheer size of the temple. A reference is missing.
Here I have added myself to the picture and despite my rather stupid pose, it instantly provides a point of reference. This relationship in size helps to categorize the stupa and establishes a sense of dimension. To achieve this effect and to provide a relationship in size, you can also use other elements which help the viewer to better comprehend an image.
Try to practice, and utilize, these three building blocks to improve your photography. You can also try combining two of these techniques to generate an even greater sense of depth. Of course these concepts are by far not the only factors that make for a good and well composed image. There are many more things to take into account but for now, it should give you a good starting point.
I hope you liked this article. Feel free to comment below and let us know what other techniques or concepts you found helpful on your quest of becoming a better photographer.
Further Reading on controlling Depth of Field: Also check out our article on Understanding Depth of Field for Beginners.
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