Elements of a Photograph: Depth

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There are seven basic elements of photographic art: line, shape, form, texture, color, size, and depth. As a photographic artist, your knowledge and awareness of these different elements can be vital to the success of your composition and help convey the meaning of your photograph.

Depth, one of the most compelling elements, is the topic of this final part in our Elements of a Photograph series.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Converging lines give visual indications of depth to a two-dimensional photograph.
Converging lines give visual indications of depth to a two-dimensional photograph.

Definition:

The Merriam-Webster definition of “depth” that we, as photographic artists, are concerned about is:

2 b: the direct linear measurement from front to back

As I stated in the last article on size, in the world of two-dimensional art, such as drawing and painting, “space” is an art element. In photography, the space is already rendered before the camera, so we look at how size and depth are reproduced, created, and recognized in the photograph.

We know that most subway cars do not narrow as one walks through them. Converging lines here add depth to the scene.
We know that most subway cars do not narrow as one walks through them. Converging lines here add depth to the scene.

Characteristics of Depth

We already discussed depth when adding the concept of depth to shape to create form. Here we will discuss the depth of a scene—relating it to size, and adding the element of space.

As we mentioned in the previous articles, a photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional scene. Naturally, even in a casual snapshot, we are given a sense of depth due to various visual cues, to which we rarely give much thought or analysis. But, if we learn what those cues are, and know how to recognize them when creating images, we can use them to our advantage, and they can help us create more compelling photographs—into which the viewer will find themselves looking “deeper.”

This perception of three-dimensional space is what our eyes experience whenever they are open, and that is what our eyes try to experience when looking at a photograph.

The lines of the bridge lead the viewer into the frame and into the scene.
The lines of the bridge lead the viewer into the frame and into the scene.

Types of Depth

Unless you are photographing perpendicular to a blank and smooth wall, your image will have depth. How well the depth is rendered is dependent on the objects in the frame, your choice of composition, and your perspective in relation to the objects in the frame. Most images have a foreground, middle ground, and background. The stronger the delineation between those successive “grounds,” the stronger the sense of depth in your image.

Including a distant horizon is not required to give a sense of depth to your image. Depth is provided by visual cues.

Diagonals indicate depth.
Diagonals indicate depth.

Visual Indicators of Depth

How does depth reveal itself in a two-dimensional photograph?

We have all seen the photographs of the highway heading toward the horizon or the train tracks narrowing as they become more distant (do not take photos on train tracks!). This convergence of lines is called linear perspective. Does the road narrow as it heads toward the desert horizon? No, but as the road gets further from the eye (or camera), it appears to converge. This shows depth.

Diagonals give a feel for depth here.
Diagonals give a feel for depth here.

Depending on the quality of the surrounding air or atmosphere, distant objects in a photograph will have less clarity and contrast than objects in the foreground. This aerial perspective is indicative of depth in a photograph. Interestingly, if you look at the Apollo astronauts’ photos from the surface of the moon, because there is no atmosphere, there is no aerial perspective to provide clues about the distance of the backgrounds in the photos.

As the texture of the bricks loses detail, we sense that they are farther from the camera. This is depth indicated by texture gradient.
As the texture of the bricks loses detail, we sense that they are farther from the camera. This is depth indicated by texture gradient.

Texture gradient shows depth in a photograph as relatively distinct foreground textures. Whether it's the surface of a road, sand on the beach, leaves or needles on a tree, crashing waves, and even clouds overhead, texture gradients in a photograph smooth out as they recede into the distance.

It should be obvious, but it bears mentioning that overlap of objects clearly delineates the closer object from that which is farther from the camera. Another obvious clue is size diminution—the smaller an object is in a photograph, the more distant it appears, assuming the viewer is familiar with the size of the object in question.

Where you place an object in a frame also offers clues toward depth. The higher an object is in the frame relative to the horizon (seen or implied), the greater is the perceived distance to that object. This is called upward dislocation.

I discuss different perspectives with a little more detail in this article.

Follow Highway 163 toward downtown San Diego and into the photograph.
Follow Highway 163 toward downtown San Diego and into the photograph.

Final Thoughts

Knowledge of the elements of art is not, by itself, the key to creating better photographs. But a familiarity with how these elements appear in the world that surrounds your camera and lens gives you a higher level of consciousness about what you are framing. That, in turn, can help you adjust your composition and even express your image more deliberately by using the tools that these elements provide.

Mission Complete!

Linear perspective is illustrated by the narrowing path as the boardwalk extends toward the beach.
Linear perspective is illustrated by the narrowing path as the boardwalk extends toward the beach.

Your thoughts on this article are welcome in the Comments section, below!

About the Elements of a Photograph Series

There are seven basic elements to photographic art:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Texture
  5. Color
  6. Size
  7. Depth

It’s worth noting that many articles and websites covering this subject list the basic elements of art as: line, shape, form, texture, color, space, and value. My list of seven includes size and depth in place of space and value. I base my list not just on graduate studies of photography and years of creating images, but on the names of basic elements featured in the personally influential Kodak book, The Art of Seeing.

With paintings and drawings, these elements are added to the blank canvas. In photography, they are presented to us in the world before our lens. Regardless of the elements of art that you learn, as I said above, it is your knowledge and awareness of these elements that can become a valuable tool in your compositional tool kit as well as help you deliver a clear meaning to your work. This awareness will generally be subconscious, but, at times, when making a photograph, these elements might come to the forefront of your artistic eye. In such moments, you can create your composition with these factors in mind.

2 Comments

Todd:

Thank you very much for the article. Your 7 basic elements will be a very helpful guide as I pursue my photographic hobby. All of the images are great examples of the basic elements. I do have one request for your consideration. I believe it would be extremely useful to your readers if you could insert some of the technical specifications (aperture setting, shutter speed, etc.) for each image. The information would help enthusiastic amateur photographers like me understand how the technical factors impacted the composition of the image. 

Hi Gary,

Thank you for the kind words! I am glad you enjoyed the articles and are putting the lessons to good use!

Thank you, also, for the suggestion. I will circle back through these articles and add the exposure information to the captions soon.

Best,

Todd

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