When you start to go down the rabbit hole of landscape photography and atmospheric perspective, there are many different image effects, knowledge of which many of us find quite useful. Aerial perspective is one such effect.
Knowing the broad elements of aerial perspective gives us an extra tool that we can use to compose more interesting photos and alter the atmosphere in our photos. I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at this effect and the various ways a landscape photographer can use it to get better images.
Understanding Image Planes to Understand Atmospheric Perspective
Before we go onto the concept of aerial perspective, it’s important to do a quick review of the concept of image planes in landscape photography.
Broadly speaking (and there are a million exceptions), in landscape photography, a scene will present three image planes – the foreground, the middle distance and the background.
Now, obviously this is very broad and generalist to the point of being useless (not every landscape image has all three), but it does provide us with the vocabulary to understand aerial perspective which can actually be quite useful in taking better landscape shots.
With image planes in mind, let’s move on…
What is Aerial Perspective? What is Atmospheric Perspective?
They are the same thing!
Aerial perspective, sometimes known as “atmospheric perspective” is the visual phenomenon in a landscape by which the foreground is dark-toned and more detailed, the middle distance is mid-toned and less detailed, and the background has a lighter tone and the least detail.
(That explanation kind of makes it obvious why it is also sometimes known as atmospheric perspective.)
For a technical explanation of why this happens, you might want to read about Rayleigh Scattering, but it’s not strictly necessary for our purposes.
When a landscape image has these elements in that particular way, it reinforces the viewer’s notion of what a landscape is. To quote John Hedgecoe, “we find them comforting.”
The aerial perspective effect is especially distinct in layered landscapes like that below.
Notice how the nearer objects display more detail, darker tone and vibrancy. Distant landscape features in the middle plane display less detail and middle tone. The background (the sky) has the lightest tones and smallest contrast or detail of all of the picture planes. It is an atmospheric effect that is apparent when you’re looking at most landscape scenes (though not all).
|Middle Distance||Less detailed, mid-tones|
|Background / Far Distance||Little detail, light|
Note: “Aerial perspective” and “atmospheric perspective” will be used interchangeably in this article.
How to Use Atmospheric Perspective for Better Landscape Photos
As with many things in photography – rules, guidelines, generalisations, and even natural effects, things like aerial perspective offer us an opportunity to use our knowledge to create compelling images.
One obvious way to use this information is to break the natural aerial perspective of a scene. If people are expecting to see a landscape photograph with a darker and more detailed foreground leading to a lighter and less detailed background, then your job as a photographer becomes trying to figure out ways to interrupt that pattern.
Alternatively, you can embrace the pattern as done in layered images. Either way, doing it deliberately tends to result in better photographs.
Let’s jump into some of the ways to break the perspective of traditional landscape photographs.
Shoot a Reflection Photo
The image below is a classic landscape reflection shot, but images like this tend to grab people’s attention because they break the natural order that we’re used to. Notice how the foreground now becomes as light as the background in tone. When the close-up area doesn’t do what our brains expect, we are immediately drawn into the image.
Look for Unusual Cloud Light
Another way to alter aerial perspective can happen with unusual lighting. We’re talking about times in the weather when you have a well lit foreground with dark clouds. Take a look at this example.
Chase Foreground Mist
Another way in which aerial perspective can be altered for more compelling images is to find foreground mist. Again, this shifts the dark tones and stronger detail that we normally expect from a foreground and can make the foreground as light as the background in some cases.
Digging Down into Breaking Atmospheric Perspective
Now, if we’re going to go into detail about how to generate more compelling images from your knowledge of atmospheric perspective, then let’s break it down to the image planes and see what we can come up with.
In aerial perspective, with all things being equal, we would expect the foreground to be darker and more detailed than the rest of the scene. Anything that breaks this pattern, if used skillfully, can help to a more compelling landscape image with a spectacular atmosphere.
Above we mentioned mist, light and reflections as ways to break this pattern in your foreground. These are great starting points, but don’t be constrained. The ability to change things up is limited to your imagination. Elements such as snow, flowers, grass, sand, water or colour can all be used to shake up the foundations of aerial perspective in your shots.
To my mind, middle ground can be a little tougher to alter in landscapes than foreground (unless your seriously plan your vantage point for shooting), but they are a long way from impossible.
With aerial perspective, the middle ground will have slightly less detail and slighter lighter tones than your foreground, but with some planning, it doesn’t have to be that way.
An obvious way to get around that is to include elements of detail in the middle ground – landmarks or elements that stand out. Buildings, trees, animals etc. These elements will also impact the overall atmosphere in your image, so choose wisely!
With atmospheric perspective, we would expect the background or sky to be the lightest in tones and the lowest in details.
So how do we change that up?
An obvious way is to shoot storm clouds which are usually dark and often a lot more detailed than their white counterparts. They also enhance the ominous atmosphere if that's your goal! People find storm photos compelling partly for those reasons. Clouds, in general, when they differ from the standard white fluffy type can be used for compelling far distance shots, so think of color (such as that in the golden hour) or shape – things that can differentiate your skies from what people are expecting.
Layering (as in the top photo) is another way to emphasise that far distance. Layered shots are always popular when done well.
Leading lines are also a great way to draw the viewer’s eye towards the background of the image.
Aerial perspective is one of those effects that you never really think about until you start to have a reason. But when you know a little of it, suddenly you start down the track of figuring out how you can use that knowledge to create more interesting landscape photographs with enchanting atmosphere.
Hopefully this set of ideas has given you some things to think about in terms of how to challenge the traditional aerial perspective shots and break up that effect to produce images that are more compelling and create a stronger reaction in your audience.
If you love landscape photography then don't forget to take a look at our wonderful resource page on Landscape Photography – we think it is great that you can get all these resources in one place and we hope it helps you to become the best landscape photographer you can be.
If you want to elevate your landscape photography then check out Kent DuFault's The Complete Landscape Photography Guide.
It is a fantastic guide packed with illustrations that give you the visuals to help you grasp the concepts of great landscape photography. There are also assignments that will help you put your learning into practice.