I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about how we can bring a sense of three dimensions to that two-dimensional medium that we work within. A photograph, no matter how good it is, is only a two dimensional piece of art. We view it on a flat piece of paper or on a two dimensional computer monitor, and we only view it with our eyes. That is one of the biggest challenges that photographers have to overcome. If the photos you shoot can only be interpreted two-dimensional pictures on a flat surface, then those photos are not going to do a very good job of inspiring emotion. And inspiring emotion is ultimately what we seek to accomplish as photographers.
The five senses
From the time we are children, we understand what the five senses are: sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. We photographers have sight covered. Our craft is all about capturing visual information and re-creating it so that our viewer can experience what we saw no matter where he happens to be. But is sight enough? Now obviously, unless you're talking about Smellavision, you can't capture the other four senses in a photograph, at least not literally. What you can do is excite the viewer's imagination in such a way that he feels as if he can smell, taste, touch, or hear something in the scene that he is only able to see with his eyes. How do you do that? By understanding the psychology of the way people interpret photographs.
This is the first article in a series of five about how we can capture the five senses in our photographs. So we're going to start with the obvious one—sight—not just because it's the one that you've likely been focused on for most of your photographic career, but also because it's the one that you may need to fine-tune before you can move on to the others.
Let's talk for a moment about that problem that is common to all photographs—the chore of making a three dimensional scene appear three-dimensional even on a two-dimensional surface. If you really take the time to think this through, it's kind of a wonder that anyone with a brain can "see" three dimensions when looking at that flat piece of paper. In the real world we use a phenomenon called "stereopsis" to judge distance, or to interpret what we're seeing as three-dimensional. Stereopsis has to do with the convergence of images on the retina of each eye. The human eyes are roughly 2.36 inches apart (depending on the person, of course), so the image that one eyes sees is always going to be a little bit different from the image that the other eye sees. The brain compares the position of each image on each retina, and then uses the results of the comparison to judge distance, or to come to a conclusion about the three dimensionality of the scene. This doesn't happen with photography, which which would be a problem if stereopsis was the only way that the human brain could interpret distance. But because it also uses what we call "monocular cues" to judge distance, photographers can use other tricks to help create the illusion of distance.
The first monocular cue that photographers often turn to is "previous familiarity," which is just a fancy way of saying that human beings use experience to judge distance. For example, you know roughly how large a bush is, and you know roughly how large a mountain range is, so if you place a bush in the foreground of a photograph and a mountain range in the background, your viewer will be able to compare the visual sizes of those two objects and come to a conclusion about how far apart they are. That's how the brain can conclude that it's actually looking at a three dimensional scene instead of a two dimensional one, and it's also why some of the most impressive landscapes you've probably seen feature objects in the very near foreground.
The Pulpit by Flickr user Ian Cylkowski
Previous familiarity is not the only monocular cue that you can use to create a more realistic sense of three dimensions in your photographs. You can also use converging lines. The most obvious example of converging lines is a railroad track (although it's worth noting that in the most parts of the United States you're not allowed to actually get close enough to railroad tracks to photograph them). Converging lines can also be found in roads, fences, tree trunks etc.—basically any set of parallel lines that moves away from where you are standing into the distance. Those parallel lines will always appear to converge, a phenomenon that every sighted human is familiar with, and understand represents depth and distance. If you can include converging lines in your photograph, you can create that sense of three dimensions that may otherwise be lacking if you were to, say, photograph those parallel lines from dead-on rather than allowing them to travel diagonally off into the distance.
Radiant by Flickr user WherezJeff
Another visual cue that we subconsciously understand when we look at a scene is that paler objects are more distant than more saturated objects. To demonstrate this phenomena, look out towards the horizon. If you have mountain ranges on the horizon or other objects such as a city skyline, you will see that the most distant objects are a very pale color. This desaturation is caused by haze in the atmosphere, but the reason for it is not as important as what it can tell us visually about distance. Any human who has spent time gazing at the horizon understands that those pale colors can be found in more distant objects, so when you include those pale distant objects in your composition, you give your image a strong sense of depth or three dimensions.
"Interposition" is just a 50-cent word meaning "objects that overlap." If you place a series of overlapping objects in a scene, it will create a sense of three dimensions. For example, if you're shooting a landscape you may want to have a bush in the foreground, a mountain range in the distance and a series of other overlapping elements in between, such as boulders, water features, or trees. When those objects are seen to overlap or when one object is partially obscured by another, your viewer's mind interprets that as meaning that the obscured object is at a greater distance than the object in front of it. This is true even if the objects in the foreground appear larger than the objects in the background. Because we understand that the objects appear to be smaller the farther away you are from them, we can make an accurate guess about the size of the scene based on all those overlapping elements.
On that same note but from a sort of backward approach, you can also trick your viewer into thinking that objects in the foreground are interacting with objects in the distance using a technique we call "forced perspective." One very common example of this is that ubiquitous photograph of people holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Those people are in the foreground, but if their hands are lined up in exactly the right way they can appear to be on the same plane as the background object, which can view the fool the viewer into thinking that the subject and background are actually interacting with each other. This is a yet another function of that two-dimensional medium that we are forced to work within as photographers. Using forced perspective does take some of that three-dimensional feeling out of your photographs, but it replaces it with humor, which can by itself be a compelling way to compose an image.
Dogwood 2017 Week 10 Story: Perspective by Flickr user michael.paul
Of course making good use of the sense of sight doesn't just mean re-creating a three dimensional feeling. The expression "eye candy" is often used to describe objects that are beautiful or irresistible to look at. You can cater to that sense of sight by making sure that you choose objects that are visually compelling or interesting. Think about texture, color, pattern, and just overall uniqueness of subject whenever you're composing an image. And consider perspective as well—remember that most human beings view the world from somewhere between 5 and 6 feet off the ground, which means that photos that are shot from that perspective often seem mundane, unless the subject itself is very unusual. If you're photographing something that's a beautiful but common, such as a rose, consider finding an angle or perspective that isn't often used when photographing that subject to give it a little bit of added interest. How about shooting the rose from below? Or zooming in just on a single dew drop-covered pedal? Or focusing on the ladybug that happens to be sitting there? Unusual, interesting perspectives or quirky subjects and rich details such as fine texture all give the visual senses something lively and exciting to take in, and create a more compelling and interesting photograph overall.
If you have been taking photographs for any length of time you already think visually, because that's what a photograph is. However you need to take your thinking one step further to really start creating visually compelling images. Think about the senses in terms of the joy that they bring to people. What objects, subjects, and perspectives bring you happiness? And how can you visually capture that happiness in a photograph? In other words, don't think in terms of what you're saying, but in terms of what those visual elemnets make you feel. Only then will you truly be capturing in a photograph that takes advantage of everything that the sense of sight has to offer.
- Photography is a two dimensional medium
- Use visual cues to fool your viewer into seeing three dimensions
- Previous familiarity
- Put something in the foreground
- Converging lines
- Shoot parallel lines so they appear to converge
- Color saturation
- Include distant, pale objects
- Include overlapping objects
- Forced perspective
- Use clever positioning to make it appear as if objects in the foreground are interacting with objects in the background
- Choose beautiful subjects
- Look for unusual perspectives
Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?