Layer Your Image for Narrative Depth

Most of the time when photographers talk about layers in a photo, they speaking about postprocessing in Photoshop. In this post, I am talking about visual and narrative depth in an image. To make a photo visually appealing, you need to create a sense of depth both physically as well as narratively.

Given that most cameras do not have stereo vision and so by default shoot a two-dimensional image, creating a sense of depth has always been an issue for photographers. We are always struggling how to translate depth into only two dimensions. So we have to suggest at depth. We do this in a very simple way.

  • Example of lack of depth
    This valley is certainly dramatic and the side of the valley leading up to the edge of the frame does give it some depth. But look at the next image...

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Some Practical Tips for your Consideration

From a practical point of view, agencies and clients like an offset image as it leaves space for copy.

When talking about composition in photography the discussion can become quite obtuse at times – quite complicated and even esoteric. We often throw around words and concepts like the Rule of Thirds or the Fibonacci Triangle, Visual Weight or Visual Mass. There’s a place for all this, but there’s also a place for something much more pragmatic. So today, I want to give you a couple of practical compositional advice. Continue reading

Going into depth

f/1.2, 1/320 sec, at 85mm, 100 ISO, on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

I am what some people call an intuitive photographer. By that I mean, I take photographs often by what feels right. Many times people that are intuitive at any craft or talent make bad instructors. When asked why they do something they simply reply, “I don’t know, it just feels right.” As an instructor, I find this a challenging aspect of my teaching – to take those things that are intuitive for me and make them methodical. By methodical I mean, make it into a method or a system that others can use. I face the challenge to understand why I do something so that I can put it into words for others. Many times it is in talking with other people or reading articles about why people do things, is when the light comes on and I realize this is why I do something.

A light came on for me this past week. Over the last couple weeks I’ve had several people ask me what lenses I keep on my camera? The answer to this is pretty straightforward, on one camera body I keep my 16–35mm f/2.8, and on my other camera I keep either my 50mm f/1.2 or my 85mm f/1.2. When thinking about this, I realized that I am a creature of extremes. When I use my 16–35mm I almost always use it around the 16mm focal length. When I use my 50mm or my 85mm lens I’m almost always shooting at an f-stop of 1.2. But why?

It dawned on me recently while speaking with David DuChemin about dynamic balance and the rule/principal/suggestion of thirds that this really has almost everything to do with my use of extremes. Let me try to explain. I used the 16mm because I like a wide vista that allows me to frame my subject to one side of the image, yet still giving me plenty of room to play out the rest of the story in the frame. Not only does this add to the storytelling element, it is a compositional technique that gives a balance between your subject and often negative space. It allows the viewer to move there eye around the frame taking in information and returning to the main subject. Of course, this is based on the ever popular “Rule of Thirds”. This rule or principle states basically that by framing a subject on one of the four “power points” within the frame, the photographer creates a sense of tension or dynamic balance. It keeps your subject from being static and thus boring. Of course, you can do this with any lens, but a super wide-angle lens allows you to do this with ease and can include so much more information.

But why do I seem to fall back to  f/1.2? Certainly, I love the look. But why does this appeal to me? While talking with Jarod Foster on Skype the other day it dawned on me, it’s not that much different than why I use a 16mm lens. It has to do with composition –  only it’s more composition of depth. Most of us know a photograph should have a foreground, a mid-ground and a background. Often a photograph can be cluttered with detail that is extraneous to the image – or we can say, to the story. This information can actually distract a viewer’s eye away from the subject. By using an extremely shallow depth of field, your subject becomes isolated by the soft blurred background that often becomes negative space and can draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. Humans naturally view the world with varying depth of fields. Even now as I look at my computer monitor, behind it, through my window I see a roll of condominiums that stretch along the beach. Yet when I focus my eyes on what I’m writing, in my peripheral vision those condominiums are blurred and this allows my brain to maintain focus on what I am writing. I’m pretty sure that this sense of depth that we see in the real world is transferred into a photograph when we use the shallow depth of field. I think intuitively, I was shooting a narrow depth of field to create a sense of that depth. In the past, I have only described using a shallow depth of field as a tool to isolate my subject. But now, as I think about it, it’s more than just isolating the subject,  it’s creating a sense of depth within the image.

I know this sounds extremely elementary for many of you. In fact, at this point you may have even felt you have wasted another 10 minutes by reading this post.  But before you run off let me ask you a few simple questions. Are you able to articulate why you shoot the way you do?  Can you tell me why you use the lenses you use? Why do you choose the f-stop you do? Are the choices you make intentional?  If you can’t answer these simple questions, then maybe it’s time for you to sit down and think through the choices you make when you go to photograph a subject.  Once you get to the point that you can articulate these choices, you will have much more depth to your images.


Penang Introduction to Photography

I just finished my first ever Introduction to Photography course here in Penang this morning. I had eight students with varied experience, all gather at my house around my dining table for a look into how to get the best out of their cameras. I must say, three hours seemed more like three minutes. But with the help of a snazzy (I must say) Keynote presentation, we were able to stay on task yet answer most of the questions and still have some time left for some practical work. I had wanted to take everyone to the beach to shoot, but it rained rather hard here this morning. So, when it stopped for a few minutes, we ran into the road in front of my house and shot some mini-assignments. The aim was not to take pictures of the beach, but to practice what we covered in class. So we were still able to accomplish that. In fact, I must say I was quite impressed with the images they came up with right on my road. It just goes to show, a good photo is made not taken.

In the three short hours we were able to cover the basics:

  1. how to hold your camera
  2. button and dials
  3. the exposure triangle
  4. aperture (depth of field)
  5. shutter speed (motion)
  6. ISO
  7. exposure compensation
  8. basic composition:
    • rule of thirds
    • uses of lines
    • negative space
  9. plus a myriad of trick and tips

The students seemed pleased. One student wrote,

“Thanks! I love the course. I learned a lot about the artistry rather than just aperture/shutter speed etc…”

If you’re a new photographer or know someone that would have benefited from this three hour introduction but missed it, don’t fret! I’m running the same course this Wednesday, December 15th from 9am till 12pm. There are still plenty of spaces for this Wednesday’s course. Just email or call me (+60 164908704) for information or registration. It is a great value for only RM 150 or $47.  Join the fun!