How Seeing in 3D Can Improve Your Photography


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

Foreground elements can frame a shot and add depth to it. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

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.

Tilting the camera is a way to achieve depth. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

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.

Changing vantage points changes a shot.

Play peek-a-boo

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.

Partially revealing a subject draws attention to it. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

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.

About Author

Aloha Lavina is an Asia based photographer and writer whose photographs and writing have appeared in CNNTravel, Canon PhotoYou Magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, and several books. You can see her work at her website and follow her on her blog.

You’ve struck on a very important point, alohal. It’s all about fooling the brain into thinking we are seeing in 3D.
Even the eye doesn’t receive an image in 3D. Its the brain that sort out the depth thing by making known comparisons. Object that appear smaller but should be the same size, converging lines, comparative heights, clarity are all ways for the brain to think ‘Oh yeah. That’s smaller than this or that’s further away than this.’
As you pointed out, the draughsman do it with 3D drawings.
There’s only one plane to work with in the photo but creating the illusion of many planes is the art of photography.
Great post.

Hey Tom, thanks for pointing out that it’s the brain’s work to put the 2D input into a 3D visual perception. Yeah, all topics you mentioned are great to look into, to learn how to photograph in 3D. That’s why this craft is so much fun!

Actually we DO see in 3D. Our 2 forward facing eyes provide binocular vision and the brain makes complex geometrical calculations on the angles of our eyes relative to each other and the shape of our lens when we focus on an object. These dual images and all this information combined provides the brain with a 3D image. With a single image there is only lighting, focus, and size relationships to provide the perspective which is what this article teaches to exploit.

Hi Gene, thanks. It’s a challenge because of the medium, and I think worth focusing on. It helps to look at paintings–painters have some awesome techniques that help the 2D art with scale and depth.

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