#Back to the Roadmap

Try catching a ball with one eye closed. That is difficult, right? Your brain needs both eyes to see the world three dimensional. Because your camera only has one eye (the lens), it can only record the two dimensions height and width. But how can we still create a sense of the third dimension, namely depth? This can be done using five techniques:

This page describes these techniques.

Scale and Perspective

If you have ever visited an impressively deep cove or high mountain, you might know how difficult it is to capture the magnitude of the scene. The photograph just doesn’t do justice to sheer size of the landmark. This is because the photo does not show depth, something we need to estimate size.

Luckily there is a trick for that: Use objects for scale. There are some objects we all know the (approximate) size of. You can use these objects in your picture as scale reference. One of these objects are people, as we all know the approximate size of an adult. Consider the image below. The people on the beach are very small, this indicates that the beach is very outstretched.

Beach near Middelburg, The Netherlands

The people on this beach help to scale the stretched size of the beach. Taken in Middelburg, The Netherlands.

You could also choose to add an object in the foreground for scale. A planter for example also is a very known object to many of us, and can be used for scale too.

Market Hall / Markthal Rotterdam

A planter used for scale to show the height of the Market Hall in Rotterdam. The two people vaguely visible in front of the building help add scale too.

A second benefit of adding an element to the foreground is that it emphasizes the distance between the viewer of the photograph and the scene in the back. This creates a sense of depth, just like in the photo below.

Erasmus bridge, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Erasmus bridge, Rotterdam, The Netherlands – The wooden jetty (pier) adds depth to the photo.

A similar technique to using a foreground, is working with a frame. Since the frame is part of the foreground, it separates the scene from the viewer. However, a frame also helps to viewer to concentrate his mind on the subject.

Another point of view - Eyes off the road

Using the front chairs of the car to create a impression depth.

Use objects and foregrounds for scaling and perspective, and your photos will start showing depth.


We all have seen the films, or photos, in which people walk or drive a long road towards the horizon. We all know the road leads away from the viewer. This is because of the simple rule: things appear smaller as they get further into the distance (in photography we use converging lines).

Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciência

The converging lines of the road and palm trees add depth to this two dimensional photo.

Roads however, are not the only lines you can use to add depth to a picture.  Stairs, a line of people, a wall, or a repetitive patterns all appear smaller as they get further away. Take a look at the page about lines and patterns (click here) to learn how to use them effectively.


The rhododendrons appear to be smaller in the back than in the front.

Not only converging lines add an impression of the third dimension. Horizontal lines can do so too if you use them to create layers. In the picture below there are several horizontal lines, defining different layers: the water, the grass, the trees in the background, and finally the sky.

Dutch cows

The water, grass, trees, and grey sky form the layers in the photo. All horizontal lines.

Applying lines in your photograph shows how objects get smaller as they disappear into the distance.


A little less known technique to create depth in a image is colour. The perception of depth changes as the colour temperature changes. Warm colours appear closer to the viewer of a photo, while cool colours appear farther in the distance. For example the images below. They show how a warm foreground and cool background change the scene opposed to the cool foreground and cool background combination. When taking a photo look for a foreground with warm colours (orange, red, yellow) and look for a cool background (purple, blue). This could also be achieved during post-processing.

Besides using colour temperature, also try to use complementary colours. Complementary colours are opposing each other: when you combine these two colours, they turn black or white. Some examples are:

  • Orange/Yellow versus Blue
  • Purple/Rose/Red versus Green

Using one colour in the foreground and the complementary colour in the background makes the subject stand-out of the scene, creating an impression of depth.

Bunker at the Atlantikwall

Red poppies on a green background to separate the subject from the background.

Knowing how colours work gives you another strong tool to create powerful images.


A fourth tool to add a three dimensional feel to your photos is light. Use light to highlight your subject and draw the eyes towards it. Depth is created by the difference in light intensity between the background and foreground.


Shadows in the foreground and the light of the sun in the background to emphasize the church.

Light also can be used to “suck the eye” towards it, like a moth attracted to light our eyes do so too. In the image below, the horizon is the most bright part of the photo, drawing the eyes towards the back.

Loosdrechtse plassen

The top of the photo is dark, the horizon is bright, drawing the eyes to the end scene.

There is a “rule” in photography: always photograph with the sunlight in your back. By doing so, the shadows fall behind your subject limiting major light differences in your photo. However, by breaking this “rule” you have another tool to create depth.

Rotterdam Central Station

Break the rules, don’t shoot with the sun in your back!

Adding a light source towards the camera loosens the subject from the background.


The sun in the back to brighten up the contours of the subject.

But there is a second benefit to that. Light coming from the back creates wonderful lines around the objects in the photo, and cast shadows towards the viewer. The human brain uses these shadows to estimate the depth of the objects.


Shadows leading towards the camera prove that there is a distance between the viewer and the trees.

A bit more difficult, but light is a powerful tool!


The final tip on this page to create an illusion of the third dimension is using sharpness. In real-life this is true: The further the distance to an object, the lower the details. Although one of the features of a landscape photo is a large depth of field, lacking sharpness in the background is natural. This is one of the reasons the hyperfocal-distance is not popular with every photographer.

In the picture below it is clear that sharpness is lacking in the mountains in the back. This, combined with layers and a lower contrast in the back of the photo, is the key to the sense of depth.


The mountains in the distance aren’t tag sharp. This, and the layers of the mountains, add depth.

Depth of field is a strong tool in photography. Applying a shallow depth of field emphasizes the gap between the subject and the background. In the photo beneath, it is clear that there is a distance between the girl taking the picture, and the guy posing. The narrow depth of field prevents the photo from being compressed into a two dimensional scene. However, this does not mean your landscape photos should have a narrow depth of field, although limiting it could help!

Amsterdam Tourists

The narrow depth of field emphasizes the distance between the guy and the girl.

While on the field, it is difficult to remember all five points discussed on this page. Try to use them one by one to benefit your photography. Applying these five tips will help you to add the third dimension into you two dimensional photos.

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