The illusion of depth

Gary Hart Photography: Frozen Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite

Frozen Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/40 second
F/9
ISO 100

It seems too obvious to mention, but I’ll say it anyway: Photography is a futile attempt to render a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium. Unfortunately, that reality doesn’t seem to keep people from putting their eye to their viewfinder and clicking without regard for their camera’s unique view of the world. But here’s a secret: Anyone with a camera can manage the lateral (left-to-right) aspect of a scene, but the photographers who distinguish themselves are those able to convey the illusion of depth by translating a scene’s actual depth to their camera’s virtual depth.

Creating the illusion of depth isn’t rocket science. It starts with seeking a foreground for your beautiful background, or a background for your beautiful foreground. Once you’ve figured out your foreground or background, do your best to ensure that the elements at varying depths don’t merge with each other—the more elements in your frame stand alone, the more you invite your viewers to move incrementally through the frame, hopping (subconsciously), front to back, from one visual point to the next. Getting elements to stand apart often requires some physical effort on your part (sorry): Moving left/right, up/down, foreword/backward changes the relationship between objects at varying depths, sometimes quite significantly.

With your foreground and background identified, decide whether you want the entire image in focus, or selective focus that guides your viewer to a particular point in the frame. With all your pieces in place, you’re ready to choose your f-stop and focus point. (Here’s some extra credit reading: hyperfocal focusing techniques.)

About this image

The primary subject here is Half Dome, but I had to work incorporate all the other wonderful things going on this afternoon: fresh snow, beautiful clouds, warm sunlight, and an abstract reflection.

With Half Dome as my centerpiece, my biggest concern was organizing the other visual elements into a coherent image. I started with the decision that a vertical orientation would make the most efficient use of the scene, allowing me to include the river at the bottom of my frame and Half Dome at the top without shrinking the scene and introducing less interesting elements on the left and right. I didn’t want too much sky, but I found a break in the clouds for the top of my frame.

I could have moved a little to the right and made the reflection my entire foreground, but I decided to use the snowy riverbank to convey an illusion of depth. Because there wasn’t too much visual interest in the snow, I included just enough snow to frame the left side of my scene. A focus point about 20 feet away gave me sharpness throughout my frame. Click.

Focus and depth of field simplified

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A Gallery of Depth

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9 Comments on “The illusion of depth

  1. Hi Gary:
    Here’s what us art profs use to do that: Relative size, vertical placement, overlap, linear and atmospheric perspective.

    • Thanks, Joel. Wouldn’t it be nice if landscape photographers could just place whatever they need, wherever they need it. (It would also be nice if I could draw anything more complex than a stick figure.) Hope you’re doing well.

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