When I first started carrying my camera around every day, I saw pictures in two dimensions. My photos were like line drawings on paper—so many inches wide and so many inches long, but flat. Later, I started to see differently. I learned to see in multiple planes, like an architect would when drawing perspective sketches of a building. When I learned to see multiple planes in a scene, I saw a change in my photos. They didn’t look like flat recordings of things I’d seen. Instead, the multiple planes in the photos created depth, so the images looked three-dimensional.
One of a photographer’s challenges is to see multiple planes, and make photos that look like the scene itself—with volume, with mass, alive in all its dimensions.
Here are a couple of things I’ve tried that you might like, to give depth to your compositions.
Use foreground framing
This photo of a child hanging laundry has the danger of becoming flat. If I had framed her with less of the bamboo fence, I would have gotten a flatter composition. But using the bamboo as a frame and allowing a lot of the ground behind the girl adds depth to the scene.
Similarly, this photo of a man repairing wooden structures at the temple uses the same technique, but with the additional help of camera tilt. If I had stood closer to the man, and parallel to the scaffolding, I would have gotten a flatter composition, like in the diagram below. What I did to achieve some more dynamism in the composition was to stand a little diagonally to the man; this added a tilt to my wide-angle lens, and that gave the composition a bit more interest.
Planes can present ‘layers’ of information in a photo. In environmental portraits, one of the things I find that work is to play peekaboo with the subject. What I mean is to use foreground elements to hide some part of the subject, to give it context. Usually the foreground elements are related to the subject and generally add more to the story.
In the photo of the child, the fact that he is hiding behind his mother’s skirt gives us a big part of the story: he’s shy when he notices a stranger with a dSLR smiling at him. The man who walks past while I took this shot gives another part of the story away: we’re in a crowded place full of strangers but here is a glimpse of someone’s personal space.
The woman at the market is also another peekaboo shot: I catch her framed by what she does. The scale, the colorful plastic cover of her market stall table, the vegetables, and the echo of color behind her all suggest the explosion of colors and life at this market in Vietnam.
Learning how to use multiple planes in your compositions gives your images an added depth. When you change the way you see, you will see the change in your photos.