Enduring photographs don’t duplicate human reality, they reveal unseen aspects of our world. Capturing this hidden world requires mastery of photography’s “creativity triad” that distinguishes the camera’s vision from human vision: motion, light, and depth.
Photography is the futile attempt to squeeze a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional medium. But just because it’s impossible to truly capture depth in a photograph, don’t think you shouldn’t consider the missing dimension when crafting an image. For the photographer with total control over his or her camera’s exposure variables (what exposure variable to change and when to change it), this missing dimension provides an opportunity to reveal the world in unique ways, or to create an illusion of depth that recreates much of the thrill of being there.
Creative Selective Focus
A personal favorite solution to the missing depth conundrum I call creative selective focus: An intentionally narrow depth of field with a carefully chosen focus point to flatten a scene’s myriad out-of-focus planes onto the same thin plane as the sharp subject. This technique softens distractions into a blur of color and shape, complementing and emphasizing the subject.
I especially enjoy using creative selective focus for isolation shots of colorful leaves each autumn, and for dogwood and poppy close-ups in spring. Looking for a striking subject that stands out from the surroundings, I position myself to create foreground and/or background relationships that complement my primary subject.
When composing the poppy scene depicted here, I tried to frame the foreground trio of poppies with distant poppies and other wildflowers that I knew would become soft splashes of color. Using a macro lens with extension tubes, a large aperture, and a very close focus point, I achieved a paper-thin range of sharpness that softened the busy background and helped my primary subjects stand out.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article on this very topic for “Outdoor Photographer” magazine. You can read a slightly updated version of this article in my Photo Tips section: Selective Focus.
The Illusion of Depth
Sometimes a scene holds so much near-to-far beauty that we want to capture every inch of it. While we can’t actually capture the depth our stereo vision enjoys, we can take steps to create the illusion of depth. Achieving this is largely about mindset—it’s about not simply settling for a primary subject no matter how striking it is. When you find a distant subject to feature in an image, scan the scene and position yourself to include a complementary fore-/middle-ground subjects. Likewise, when you want to feature a nearby object in an image, position yourself to include a complementary back-/middle-ground subjects.
Autumn Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Guiding my workshop group to a placid bend in the Merced River on this year’s Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop, I was instantly drawn to the reflection of Half Dome. The cottonwoods lining the distant shoreline were at their peak autumn gold, and a collection of clouds above Half Dome caught the late afternoon sun, promising good odds for a colorful sunset. These features alone would have made a great image, but I looked around for something to add to the close foreground.
I didn’t need to look long, as just about fifty feet downstream I found a collection of colorful leaves jutting into the river, perpendicular to the shore. I shifted my position until the leaves appeared to point directly at Half Dome and dropped my tripod until my camera was about a foot above the water. With a half hour or so until sunset, I had plenty of time to play with the scene, familiarize myself with all the compositional variables, and refine my composition and focus point. Despite the relative closeness of the floating leaves, at 16mm I knew I had plenty depth of field to carry the entire scene if I was careful. Stopping my lens down to f/16, I focused on a leaf near the middle of the group, about two feet away. This gave me good sharpness from about a foot to infinity and I was in business.
Here’s my Photo Tips article on using hyperfocal focus techniques to enhance your images’ illusion of depth: Depth of Field.