Are Your Photographs Falling Flat?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever made a photograph that looks flat. I know, I know. It happens. And it does so more often than we’d like for three reasons:
- Cameras produce a two-dimensional image (length and width). Humans perceive the world in three dimensions, length, width, and depth. Humans have depth perception. Our cameras do not.
- Cameras record reflect light from objects. Humans perceive objects and assign labels to them. So while you and I see sand, rock, and pools of water, our camera intakes only a range of contrasts from shadows to highlights. It couldn’t care less about “sand,” “rock,” or “pools of water.”
- When humans perceive objects, sometimes our eyes and brains deceive us. What we think we see and what we actually see sometimes differ. One needs to only do an internet search for “optical illusions” to see how our brain plays tricks on us. (Check out one of my favorites: the Herman-grid illusion.)
By understanding how humans organize what we see (i.e. human perceptions and Gestalt psychology) and how to interpret that into our camera’s language, we can incorporate subtle visual clues that help us render the illusion of depth and dimension.
This approach works best if we think about defining relationships among visual elements as opposed to “identifying a primary subject” (as many of us were taught). Our viewers see the entire frame, not just a single dominant object. When you approach a scene, ask “What shapes exist and how do they interrelate in the frame with each other?” We can then separate these shapes from each other by our use of the three L’s: lines, layers, and light.
Even though we may see a boardwalk, a fence, or a shoreline, our cameras see lines as mere edges of contrast—a combination of a highlight and shadow. Lines create a pathway for a viewer’s eye to travel into and around our frame. That pathway should lead the viewer somewhere of interest and not out of the frame.
But paying attention to how lines work together can do even more for our photographs. Two or more lines converging create what’s called a vanishing point. Humans perceive the point at which the two lines vanish to feel farther away.
Photo ©Colleen Miniuk
Multiple lines intersecting can also create shapes: triangles, rectangles, and more. Overlapping shapes, ones that are separate in our reality but appear to intersect when presented in our two-dimensional media, create the illusion of depth. Humans perceive a partially-obscured object to feel farther away than a whole object. In art circles, this is called interposition. Move your position to alter how close—or far—visual elements appear with each other.
Sometimes, though, this overlap creates unnecessary visual tension and distracts the viewer’s eye unnecessarily. The latter results in a merger. Think telephone poles coming out of a person’s head. Or obstructed lines of a river. Or trees “touching” a horizon line. A simple step to the left or the right, or adjusting your tripod or view higher or lower, to reposition your camera is usually enough to create a separation between the two elements and eliminate it (or at least make it less obvious) within the frame.
The relative size of different shapes also plays into how we interpret distances in a photograph. Large objects look closer than small objects. Photographers can play up this illusion by leveraging the distortion in wide-angle lenses and using a “forced perspective” (this is also called the “near-far technique”).
To do this, position your camera with a 28mm or wider lens physically close to an object in the foreground. Even closer! Like within a foot or two. This will make the foreground elements appear larger than it truly is relative to the rest of the visual elements in the mid-ground and background. To ensure the entire frame remains in focus, consult a depth of field app to determine the hyperfocal distance. This calculated number will help you decide where to place your focus point and what aperture to use. A small aperture (like f/16 or f/22) or focus stacking multiple images will help capture the extensive depth of field across the entire frame.
You may not want the entire frame to be in focus. You may wish to achieve additional separation between layers, and thus depth, by controlling which parts of the frame appear in focus versus out of focus. Set a wide aperture (like f/4 or f/5.6) and place your focus point on a single visual layer. The shallow depth of field will blur the surrounding elements. The human eye has difficulty looking at things that are out of focus, so the areas that remain sharp will grab the viewer’s attention as well.
Image Below: By positioning my tripod in between knee and waist high, then tilting my camera down toward the rocks, I was able to leverage the distortion of my wide-angle lens (an 8mm on my mirrorless camera, or a 16mm equivalent in 35mm) to create the illusion of depth. This forced perspective made the rocks in the foreground look substantially larger than the same-sized rocks in the distance and the much larger mounds on the horizon. This makes the foreground rocks feel closer to the viewer when they are literally on the same plane in this two-dimensional photograph.
Photo ©Colleen Miniuk
The word “photography” may mean “to paint with light,” but if we do not also incorporate shadows into our frame, a flat photograph will result. Side and backlight produce shadows. Front and top light do as well, but oftentimes those shadows are not visible to the camera because of our perspective. A simple shift to the right or left could mean the difference between a shapeless and shapeful image in small scenes. With broader scenes, you might need to return at a different time of day or season.
Direct light offers the most pronounced contrasts between highlights and shadows. What do we do on overcast days? We don’t pack up and go home! Look for natural tonal separations between lights and darks.
To determine how flat your image looks, conduct a “tone check” in the field. Change your Picture Style to Monochrome. This will display a black and white image in your camera’s playback mode. (If you’re photographing in RAW, your camera will still record the file in color. If you’re photographing in JPEG, it will render a black and white photograph—which may not be what you wish, so be sure to return your Picture Style into a color setting before you shoot.) By doing so, areas, where tones look the same throughout the image, become more obvious. You can either choose to recompose to create more depth and/or visualize necessary adjustments in processing later.
At home, you can complete a “tone check” in processing software by converting the image to black and white. Again, this enables us to see areas of concern and where burning, dodging, and/or masking might assist in creating a greater sense of depth in the image.
Keep in mind, lighter areas feel farther away in a frame but will grab a viewer’s attention more quickly than a dark tone. Darker areas feel closer to our view but will recede into the background of attention. Lighten areas of your image you wish for the viewer to see quickly and feel more distant. Darken areas you wish to hide from the viewer’s eye and feel closer. Applying a subtle vignette around the edges of your frame can create quick and effective separation in tonal layers.
Image Below: The original, unprocessed RAW file and it’s “tone check” black-and-white conversion on the top row show just how flat the image appeared out of my camera. The tone check gave me the chance to note exactly where I needed to darken and lighten the photograph. The final, processed photograph, along with its black-and-white version, are shown on the bottom row for comparison.
Photo ©Colleen Miniuk
By paying attention to how lines, shapes, layers, and light work together, and incorporating some subtle depth clues into our photograph, you’ll not only avoid making flat images, but you’ll also encourage the viewer of your photographs to feel like they are an active part of the scene as if they are in your landscape, and not just a passive, distant observer. You’ll deepen the connection.