One of the many key distinguishing features between average imagery and great images is the photographers use of depth. If you sit down and study the work of some of the master photographers, you will notice certain distinguishing features about their images that set them apart from most other photographers. A skillful use of depth is one that stands out above most others.
WHAT IS DEPTH?
Depth is the third dimension. It is impossible to get actual physical depth in a 2D photograph so when we refer to depth we are referring to an impression of physical depth.
One of my personal favourite photographers is Alex Webb, a magnum photographer who is renowned for his street photography. Personally it is Alex’s incredible ability to convey depth in his images through layers that attracts me the most to his work.
By using different elements and layers, Alex is able to convey a much greater impression of the atmosphere and mood during the moment of the image. Alex has a great ability to take give a 2D photograph an almost 3D feeling to the point where it makes the viewer almost feel like they are a part of the scene.
HOW CAN WE CREATE DEPTH IN OUR IMAGES?
Take for example this image of children playing in a park. It is a prime example of using layers, a technique you will find in a lot of Alex’s work. By utilizing key elements in the foreground and background as well as the ‘main’ subject in the mid-ground you really start to feel as though you are actually there in that exact moment the image was taken. If the above image were just an image of the main subjects i.e the children in the mid-ground, it would have been a distinctly average image and we certainly wouldn’t be discussing it here.
By including the out of focus legs of the child in the foreground and by including the children in the background as distinctly separate layers the viewer now has a much greater sense of the busy and chaos nature of the play area.
One of the best ways to create depth in your images is by filling the frame. Alex is very good at producing the type of street photography images I would term ‘complex’ i.e those where you often have multiple subjects with lots going on. Managing each individual element and subject is incredibly difficult…like crazy difficult and he makes it seem almost effortless.
This particular image is a great example of filling the frame. There is almost no empty space in this frame and that adds to the complexity of the image. By getting up close to the foreground children and shooting fairly wide it means that they take up a large proportion of the image. The mid-ground almost takes up the rest of the shot and any remaining space is taken by the background children or the play area. By filling the frame so tightly Alex has again accentuated the chaos of the play area.
USING DEPTH TO SHOW SCALE
This second image shows how Alex is able to use depth to show scale. If we break the image down we can see that Alex has cleverly composed this image so that the perspective and framing has created layers of people from the foreground to the background.
The use of layers to give the impression of depth in this image is a great way of communicating the sheer number of people in the situation he is photographing. The three distinct layers show the viewer give the impression that there are hundreds if not thousands of people there.
By including the people in their lines that snake off into the background you can really get a sense of the magnitude and scale. If Alex had have just focused on a single person or even a small group, the image would not have conveyed the enormity of what was happening anywhere near as effectively.
This is an important reminder of how we should use depth. We shouldn’t use depth for depth’s sake. We should use it as a tool to convey the story we wish to tell in our images. Depth is just a tool in the vast toolbox of a photographer and knowing when to use depth as part of the story is just as important as knowing how to use it in the first place.
USING LIGHT TO CREATE DEPTH
Finally in this last image Alex carefully uses the contrast between light and shadow to create depth. By layering light he effectively seperates the image into zones or layers with silhouettes and contrast. These all work together to draw your eye towards the main subject. One of the hardest skills in street photography is telling a story in a single frames. Alex manages to not only imply physical depth into his images but also metaphorical ‘depth’. His images seem to offer the viewer a real insight into the moment and leave them with questions and curiosity.
It is this ability to get so much story into a single frame that makes many ‘master’ photojournalist’s work stand out above the rest. The image below is a scene so simple and unassuming yet when looking at it I want to know what is happing with each person. Is the guy on the right hitting on the girl or is he just telling her a joke? Why is the man on the left covering his face with the book and why does the man in the background seem to be comforting his daughter?
This is almost a perfect example of a multi subject street image. Alex has managed to use his subjects well to fill most of the frame without any overlap of subjects. This simple approach to shooting street imagery with multiple people in the frame and a great control of the exposure/light has created one of my favourite images. The key is in it’s simplicity.
Hopefully from the three examples above you will have gained a better understanding of how you can use depth to enhance the storytelling ability of each frame and to make your images almost come alive. Depth done well allows the viewer to feel like they can almost step into an image.
As I mentioned before, depth is not something that you should try to get into every image. Use it wisely and only when it enhances the message you are trying to convey. There are possibly scenarios when trying to create depth would be a bad decision, such as images where you are trying to convey emptiness or surrealism for example.
Study the work of photographers like Alex Webb and David Alan Harvey, see how they use it in their images and then go out and practice it. It’s one of the hardest skills in photography and takes lots of practice to do well.Is this the first time you have heard of using depth? Do you already try to get it into your shots? Drop me a message in the comments below, I would love to hear what you think!