Creating Depth in Photographs

I'm not a professional photographer, just a guy in the desert with an inexpensive automatic digital camera asking the question "how do people see"?  While the physiological process of vision is fairly well understood, the analysis and interpretation of visual information seems less well defined.  There appears to be variability in the cognitive processes used by humans in interpreting a visual image and one way to qualitatively understand this process is through photography.  In other words "what makes a pleasing image"?  In trying to understand "how people see" a number of techniques have been employed from low level aerial photography to change perspective, in combination with tilt-shift to draw attention to specific elements in a photograph, to multi-image aerial panoramas to provide the viewer with a "big picture" view of the landscape from a different perspective.  But one of the more challenging approaches is the creation of depth in a 2D photograph.  There are a number of approaches to creating depth in a photograph but the most satisfying approach I have found is in-camera layering.  Briefly, a scene is divided into a number of layers then observing differences in contrast, texture, color, and focus between the layers then composing the scene to maximize the differences to make an image.  By maximizing these layer differences it is possible to impart to the viewer a sense of depth in a 2 dimensional photograph without resorting to anaglyphs.  Below are several examples of successfully layered images.  In these images one or more components appear to stand out as a result in differences contrast, texture, color, or focus (depth of field).  It is important to point out all these images were all photographed in the auto mode so depth of field manipulations were not used.

peloncillo mountains hiking
Peloncillo Mountains outcrop

The image above (click to enlarge) is a 4 image panorama taken on a sunny day.  Although similar in color, the outcrop in the foreground is differentiated from the valley floor by differences in texture.  While it is differentiated by color from the Chiricahua mountains in the background resulting in the appearance of an outcrop of rock that appears to float on the background.

creating depth in photographs
Hill in Animas Valley in southern New Mexico

This image is a low level aerial photograph with a tilt-shift effect added.  While employing an overall difference in perspective, in this case differences in contrast between the layers (shadow along the ridge top in comparison to the background desert floor) creates an edge resulting in increased depth.  This effect is enhanced by the tilt-shit which draws the viewer towards the area of increased depth which helps the viewer interpret increased depth in the photograph overall.

photograph of new mexico mountains
Low level aerial view of the Big Hatchet mountains
This image, also a low level aerial photograph of the landscape, relies on layered differences in color to enhance depth.  The foreground layer is brown while the background layer, with Big Hatchet Peak, is blue in color.  This layered color difference helps the foreground peak stand out against the background again resulting in increased depth.

Jhus canyon grave
Headstone in Jhus canyon

This final image, of a headstone in the Chiricahua mountains, uses color and texture differences to impart a sense of depth to the image.  The flat smooth brown headstone is contrasted against a background of shrubs and grass which differ in both color and texture again imparting a sense of depth to the image. 

This technique works at any scale from small to large landscapes, and is just a matter of composition.

While a number of different post production processing techniques may be used on a photograph, generally on a slight decrease in input levels and a slight increase in contrast suffice to bring out the layered depth in a composition.


  1. This is not easy to show and you presented this very well! I hope people click on the pictures to enlarge as you get see this much better. Nice pictures!

  2. Thank you. A visual presentation of the landscape is more enticing for me personally than the written word and trying to capture the feeling created by the view is one of the goals of my photography.

  3. This headstone was placed by my father-in-laws Dad. He and his Father were tending cattle when Mr Gould came out of the desert and informed them he had shot Mr Caldwell as he was trying to steal his Gold Claim.
    Noland family