The effectiveness of photography rests on a simple illusion: using two dimensions, height and width, to give the impression of three dimensions: height, width, and depth. When we look at a photograph, we want to believe that it is the world that we are looking at, and not some little piece of paper with ink or silver halides on it. We want that image to be real, and that means that we have to believe that the two dimensions on the paper can actually show three.
So the question is this: how do we show depth in our images?
Let’s think back to the last entry in this series, about the Rule of Thirds. In essence, the rule divides the height and width of the image into three parts: top, middle, and bottom, or left, middle, and right.
Let’s apply that same idea of three to how we look at an image starting from the front, and proceeding to the back. Just as a well composed image might have an off-center subject balanced by an off-center complementary element, a well-composed image will also have objects close to the front of the frame, a little ways away, and far away.
Of course, not every image presents the opportunity to compose this way. But it is something to look for.
Foreground: This is the element in the image that is closest to the camera, and thus closest to the viewer. It does not have to be the main subject of the image, but it should be something that locates us in space. The foreground is important because it creates, in a way, a boundary for the image. Maybe it is a surface for the subject to stand on. Maybe it is a line that frames the subject, or leads our eye into the composition. One way or the other, it helps root the viewer, and gives the image of sense of being within a real environment.
Middleground: Very often, the middle distance of the photograph is where the main subject is. Or, if the subject is in the foreground, the middle ground can give some kind of context for the subject. What is the subject doing there? What activity is going on? How is the environment interacting with the subject? The middle space of an image is especially important because that, really, is where the image lives. The middleground is our world, and it is where the viewer spends the most time. Make sure that whatever is there really belongs there.
Background: While the middleground is where the main substance of an image might reside, the background is not merely a neutral backdrop to fill up the empty space in the composition. Backgrounds add interesting textures to an image; they can define what kind of light we expect to see; they can draw us in toward the subject, or set our eyes scrambling around the frame looking for more information. And backgrounds can be challenging, because, even though we rarely pay direct attention to them, they can be distracting. There is nothing worse in a portrait than an unheeded branch emerging from the side of the subject’s head. There is nothing blander than a blank wall. There is nothing more distracting than a bright point of light (your eye is naturally drawn to the lightest part of an image…it should not be the background) or a pile of clothes in the corner or an errant carton of milk on the counter. Be careful with your backgrounds.
This is not to say that one element is more important than the other. In good compositions, everything plays nicely together and creates a deep, believable, textured, rich world that communicates to the viewer. Just as the Rule of Thirds keeps our eyes going around the frame, left to right and top to bottom, an image with foreground, middle ground, and background keeps the viewer going into and out of the world of the image.
I should mention one other related technique: flattening the image. Sometimes, as a matter of art, detail, or abstraction, we might not want to create a deep world in our images. Maybe we want the image to look unreal, or drawn, or like a created design. That can make great images as well. Shoot something two-dimensional, and really strive to make it seem that way.
Take a picture of something that is up close. Take a picture of something that is a little ways away. Take an image of something that is far away.
Now, imagine how these images might look if combined. What if your mid-range shot had your long-range shot in the background? Make that picture. What if your close-range picture served as a framing for your far away picture? Make that picture.
Pay attention to depth, and create a deep world.