The Art of Composition II - Depth
Photography is a two dimensional visual medium. Whilst this fact may seem obvious, it has a profound impact on the art and craft of the photographer. The camera renders the world onto a two dimensional plane with a clearly defined boundary. By contrast, people perceive the world in multiple dimensions: the brain reconstructs a three dimensional view of the world through our eyes, our other senses add reams of additional information (in particular touch, sound, smell, taste and temperature) and we can move our point of view (we are not fixed in what we look at by the boundary of a frame).
Consequently, before one has even started to make an image there is a gap to overcome between the image and the photographer’s perception of reality. The moment the finger presses the shutter, the picture is stripped of most of the emotional and physical input the photographer is experiencing and one of the main tasks of an artist working in a two dimensional medium is to create in the mind of the viewer the impression of more dimensionality than is actually present - in short to create depth. This article examines some of the ideas and techniques to construct depth into pictures.
‘Find a teacher young Padawan, then find your own path’
I well remember the day I graduated from pointing my camera at subjects and pressing the shutter to composing pictures. It was on my first workshop with David Ward back in 2004. The night before he had shown me a number of his 5x4 transparencies on a light box. One image in particular completely blew my mind - it was a picture from Norway of a rock in a slot on the beach with a mountain in the background. I simply had not imagined it was possible to make images like this. The next day as I once again randomly pointed my camera at another subject, David wondered up to me and asked how I was doing. I admitted I couldn’t get the image from the night before out of my head and I didn’t understand how he could make such images - I could see nothing like that at all right now for example. David said ‘let me show you, you could do something like this’. He proceeded to ask for a standard lens, he reset up my tripod and moved it about 50 cm from where it had been setup. ‘How about this he said’. I looked through the viewfinder and my jaw dropped - it was a perfectly constructed composition. He repeated the same trick about two hours later. The following day I found my own first independent composition which when played back to him that night got an honest positive response and I never looked back. I started to study how photographs and paintings were composed and my compositional skills grew rapidly. David and later Joe Cornish became hugely influential on my development. They equipped me with a range of skills and provided inspiration and valuable coaching. I have spent the intervening 15 years just building on that single moment of learning.
The point of this story is that composition can and should be learnt and the fastest way to truly learn to make independent compositions and work is to find a good teacher. As a footnote, David’s picture of that rock in Norway is on the wall of my study and I now see it everyday.
A significant part of the journey I have been on is the elusive search for depth in my photography – depth in terms of creating the impression of three dimensions on two, depth in terms of creating and stimulating an emotional response in the viewer and depth in terms of seeing into the subject further. Compositional techniques to achieve depth are relatively well known: adjusting the relationship between objects in the foreground, the mid ground and the background and using certain compositional patterns can help to create the impression of depth.
For example one of the reasons the upright 5x4 frame using a semi wide angle lens works so well in landscape photography is that it allows the photographer plenty of real estate to organise the elements to emphasise and connect the foreground, mid ground and background. There are also a wide range of compositional patterns that achieve this with a 5x4 shape and add the characteristics of dynamic balance I mentioned in part I. The use of technical camera movements to adjust the relative proportions between front and back is often key to achieving this result (e.g. the so called looming foreground effect) as is the ability to achieve front to back sharpness through the use of tilt.
As an aside, although no longer using a 5x4 large format film camera I personally remain addicted to the upright 5x4 shape. I have always found a longer upright image frame such as 3:2 or taller very odd. The more traditional landscape or horizontal image shape can work but it restricts the opportunity to create depth because there is simply less real estate in the picture to organise the front to back elements and still retain picture balance. The wider the horizontal frame (such as 16x9) the smaller the number of compositional patterns that seem to work. For example 16x9 portfolios often only have one or two compositional patterns repeated - typically a v shaped movement from front left to mid right to rear left (or a similar pattern inverted).
Light is the paint that a photographer applies to the canvas. What is sometimes less well understood is the role that light plays in creating depth. Firstly, the right quality of light has the ability to transform a subject, to help create an emotional response from the viewer that might otherwise not be achieved. A grey rock in shade under a blue sky, the last rays of light striking the landscape, reflecting light in ice or water, the wonderful diffused light that can bring out strong colours in a subject - all of these things are able to transform a subject and enhance the perception of depth.
Secondly, the tonal relationship between darker and lighter areas of the image, when used well, will create a subconscious feeling of depth. Layering the image from dark to light, dark to light makes the eye move into the image slowly. It creates depth.
Eliciting a response in the viewer
One definition of art is exactly that: ‘the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or the emotions.’ The act of making art is, by this definition, to go beyond the representational - it is to
generate enough depth to tap into the emotions of a viewer and elicit a response. The techniques one develops to express oneself through art can be seen as a form of communication. It is an oft repeated adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Developing the skills of constructing a photograph can be likened to learning a new language, or rather a new way of communicating.
Prior to the 20th century, the definition of art was subtly different -
a term used to refer to any skill, mastery or craft. I like this idea of a combined meaning in the word art; that it is both a demonstration of craft and skill and yet it is also an attempt to get the viewer to respond emotionally to a subject, to hold their attention, to say something to them that you want to say,
about a subject that might be interesting to you and potentially to them.
As an aside, one of the big questions the artist has therefore to ask her or himself is what response to the subject and to the image do I want to create in the mind of the viewer and why? There has been a trend in art in recent years to focus on the original idea or on shocking and negative emotions as the only approach worthy of artistic appreciation. Landscape photography has suffered greatly, criticised for grand over idealised views of the world. I sometimes wonder if this expectation is just in the minds of the few who place a higher value on these ways of seeing. As a landscape photographer, I could focus on the damage being done to our environment and landscape from the hand of man, of say power stations, wind farms, pollution, litter, ugly buildings, global warming. There are plenty of examples close to me. If I made images of such subjects, if I documented this damage in ways that made people aware and angry about such things, would my art be of greater quality, value or worth than it currently is? Personally I like to celebrate how wonderful our fragile planet is, especially those places I know well, in the hope that this encourages people to take more care of them. I remain resolutely positive.
I love the British landscape and I am motivated to be there, to enjoy it and
hopefully through my representational work to stimulate a similar love for it in the viewer. Others will, no doubt, have different motivations. The point I am making is that a skilled photographer can consciously seek to influence the emotional response of the viewer. It is perhaps not a coincidence that some of the best landscape photographers I know started out or have made a living in advertising photography.
Relationship to the subject
Depth is also about seeing further into the subject. The photographer John Blakemore’s book ‘The black and white photography workshop’ had a huge influence on my development particularly his ideas about the importance of developing a relationship with the subject to inform vision and the value of repetition. A few weeks ago I met a photographer whilst I was away and we got talking. He proudly announced he had already ‘done’ three subjects that morning in three separate locations and had arrived here to ‘do the lone tree’. It was 11am. He was obviously enjoying himself which is great but it struck me that ‘bucket list’ photography is about as far away from my philosophy as it is possible to get. I also realised I had no idea of which particular tree he was referring to as I had paid attention to hundreds of trees in that location and must have photographed many tens. It was a place I knew intimately and had many memories that helped me create an emotional connection.
Repeated visits to a location, learning and anticipating which conditions will be most successful, exploring and iterating different compositions are all key to creating more depth.
To come back to the main point, depth is a key goal of my photography - striving to create images with more dimensionality, more meaning and more insight. Developing an understanding of how to use quality of light well in an image plays a crucial role in both the visualisation and realisation of successful images helping to accentuate the viewer’s perception of depth. Depth can also be constructed through careful composition and arrangement of the elements in the photograph. But ultimately depth is a about investing time to see further into the subject and the landscape.
(c) Jon Brock 2011 and 2021. This article is an adaptation and update of one of the chapters in my book 'Vision and Craft'.