I’ve said it before: Capturing our three-dimensional world in photography’s two-dimensional medium is impossible. But take heart, all is not lost—it is possible to give your images the illusion of depth.
It’s pretty easy to put a camera to your eye and frame up the flat, left/right and up/down aspect of a scene. But translating your own three-dimensional experience into your camera’s two-dimensional reality requires bit more insight and effort. I grew up in a family where my parents, and pretty much every significant relative it seemed, had at least one large and glossy David Muench book on the coffee table (remember coffee table books?). Starting as far back as I can remember, I used to love paging through Muench’s beautiful images of the Southwest, California, America’s national parks, and more, just marveling at the grand majesty. Though I wasn’t gazing with a critical eye, I can’t help but believe that some of Muench’s front-to-back framing approach must have rubbed off on me. It wasn’t until I started leading photo workshops that I realized that not everyone understands the importance of front-to-back relationships, and how to make them happen.
Achieving the illusion of depth starts with looking beyond your primary subject to find a complementary foreground or background: If your primary subject is nearby, find a background object, shape, or color that frames, balances, and/or helps the subject stand out. Conversely, if your primary subject is in the distance, look for foreground elements that can lead your viewers’ eyes through the frame without distracting or competing for attention.
Once you have your foreground/background elements worked out, your composition isn’t complete. In your three-dimensional view, size and distance are easily interpreted, something we stereographic humans take for granted. But your scene’s depth is lost to your camera. In its two-dimensional world, aligned objects at varying distances loose the separation that makes them stand out. To overcome this, you need to visually separate merged objects by putting them on different lines of sight, setting them apart from the scene’s other elements, allowing your image’s viewer to infer the depth that you see naturally. I can’t emphasize how important this is.
In my many years of observing and assisting other photographers working to improve their images, I’ve decided that a lack of depth management could be single most significant factor holding them back. And there seems to be an invisible force that binds tripods to their first landing place. Overcoming this force (to which I’m not immune) requires vigilant attention to each visual element in your frame, then taking whatever steps (figuratively and literally) necessary to ensure that each element stands alone. If you can’t achieve separation from your current position, move! In other words, in a static image, you’re the one who to be dynamic.
Arriving at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland in February, it was instantly clear that the scene had everything necessary for a special image: Low-hanging clouds that softened the light, turquoise ice that colored Iceland’s typically monochrome winter landscape, and crystal clear water that reflected the ice’s color and revealed submerged pastel pebbles. I could have set up my tripod anywhere and captured something beautiful, but I walked the lagoon’s shore, searching for a foreground to go with the gorgeous background, until I was finally stopped by these ice disks that seemed to have been placed like stepping stones.
I like elements that move diagonally across my frame, so I started by positioning my tripod accordingly. Turns out I loved the ice disks and colorful submerged pebbles so much that I decided to make them the feature of my frame. Attaching my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens to my Sony a7RIV, I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and scooted it into the water, getting as close as I could to the ice. I used my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to smooth the water, taking care I to turn the polarizer to the point where the submerged pebbles appeared, but not so far that I lost the color reflecting in the background. Shooting this at 16mm allowed me to get extremely close to the foreground ice and pebbles and fill most of the frame with the nearby ice disks, while demoting the much larger turquoise icebergs to lovely background observers.
One more thing
The first time I saw Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, I was blown away by this lake that had large turquoise ice cubes bobbing in water so clear that it can look like the ice is floating on air. So, as I try (need) to do with all of my subjects, I researched.
I learned that Jökulsárlón is a relatively new lake that formed in the mid twentieth century when its upstream glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, started receding (glaciers don’t actually defy gravity and back up, they simply start melting faster than their ice is replenished). The weight and friction of an advancing glacier carves deep gouges in the Earth as it inches forward and pushes some of the carved out rock and sediment ahead of it—when the glacier retreats (as most of the world’s glaciers seem to now be doing), this debris remains in place, forming a terminal moraine that can act like a dam for glacial meltwater.
Jökulsárlón is the lake that formed in the scar exposed by Breiðamerkurjökull’s retreat, filled by glacial meltwater. While it’s relatively new, at nearly 1,000 feet deep, Jökulsárlón is Iceland’s deepest lake. Its icebergs have calved from the still receding Breiðamerkurjökull. So now you know.