Add Depth to Your Photos With Dimensional Framing

Add Depth to Your Photos With Dimensional Framing

One of the greatest challenges that we have as photographers is to try to show a three-dimensional world in only two dimensions. That missing dimension, depth, can only be implied. There are many ways to create a feeling of depth. Lighting and composition are two, but my favorite is using what I call dimensional framing.

Simply stated, this is putting objects in the extreme foreground of the frame in a way that lets the viewer know that there is an obvious “foreground” and “subject.” I’m less worried about “background” in shots like this because I want the subject to either stand out or be given an additional bit of context through the use of the frame that I’ve created. This means getting very close to things so that, using the obviousness of perspective, you can tell that something is closer than the subject is. Normal to wide angle lenses are where this technique shines. Longer lenses are usable but much harder to get the "foreground - subject" effect that makes this work.

Note: I get very close to things all the time to use them as framing devices — so much so that I think of my lens hoods more as a "bumper" than as devices to keep stray light off of my lens. I have so many dents in my hoods that you would think that I drop my lenses a lot. During shoots I regularly push my lens into objects to get an interesting frame, looking through the viewfinder to see if the effect is what I'm after, only to have my hood go "DOINK!" against something. So if you do this sort of thing, make sure you have a hood on your lens.

There are an endless number of ways to accomplish this but here are some ideas that make this work.

1) Use the Edges

Find a way to have something line up against the whole of the edge of the frame. It doesn't have to be the bottom. In this instance I put the top of the opening of the machine in the upper part of the frame so that when I pointed up at the worker he appeared in the big hole. The pattern of bolt holes at the top gave the distinct impression of being inside the machine rather than just looking at him from a "human" perspective. Here using a good amount of depth of field gave a strong sense of being there but didn't distract the viewers eye away from the real subject, the person.

2) Use Differences in Light/Color

These ladies were old friends and you could tell by the energy that they put out. All dressed up for a summer party I realized that the fabric of dresses the said enough and that I didn't need faces or heads. The difference in light between the two in front of me and the lady in red, along with the expression/gesture, pointed to the subject, and the framing of the dresses gave depth while quietly explaining the rest of the story.

3) Limited Depth of Field

I moved in very close and used my 85mm lens wide open to draw attention to her eyes. As she reached up to fix her hair in the mirror I moved up close and shot through the curve of her arm to frame her face with the soft out of focus image of her self. Finding things that are very out of focus but are not just a visual mess to frame your subject with isn't as easy as it seems. You have to play around until you find the right sort of objects. Many will initially seem interesting but once you really look at the quality of the out of focus object has it will often be distracting, not supporting the subject. I've seen photographers who have a bunch of things in a bag that they keep with them and use those as out of focus elements. Truly a "trick bag." That certainly makes for an easy way to jazz up a frame but to me that's not as much fun as being inspired by the environment and the moment.  

By the way, this sort of shot can really only be done with a DSLR or non-rangefider mirrorless camera with a live view mode. Sorry Leica film guys, you just can't easily see how the out of focus is going to look unless you can actually see the way that the lens renders. 

4) Shoot Through Can Mean "Through"

In this instance, I shot with a 28mm f/1.4 again wide open. I put the lens very close to the pint glasses that were on the bar which abstracted them and distorted much of the young ladies having fun at happy hour. I think that it added a swoosh of dreaminess to the image — reminiscent of a blurred memory of a great night out with friends.

5) Lead the Eye

I got at ground level and shot through the legs of this wrestling coach at he gave his team a pre-match speech. The inverted "V" shape of his legs and the teams faces all pointed up gives a strong sense of their focus and the graphic element of the legs reinforces that. Shot with a normal lens it feels like you are there with them.

6) It Doesn't Have to "Make Sense"  

If you can find something that frankly just looks interesting to look through or around then try shooting it. It could work. It doesn't necessarily need to be identifiable to add to the image. Here I was making images of the bottling line at a brewery and the diagonal line and color of the bottles on their way to being filled was simply neat looking.  The blue color that the bottles picked up from light reflected from the open loading dock contrasted with the brown of his shirt. You don't have to know what it is if the composition works.

7) Clutter Is Your Friend

It always cracks me up when I have an assignment to photograph a scientist or engineer because when I walk in they almost always quickly look up from their work and in a panic say "Oh right, Thursday at 3 ... photographer from the magazine. Uh, let me clean up this mess!" 

Are you kidding me? There's these tubes, wires, circuit boards, and strange stuff that I can't identify all over the place. This is great! 

What they see a a bunch of ugly stuff is to me a load of opportunities to see my subjects through the perspective of their own work. I begin poking my lenses into machines and the spaces between objects to find a way to put them into interesting context. Here I used all the projects that was on the desk of a computer hardware engineer at a design firm to make a brainy fellow who stares at computer stuff all day both interesting as well as give the viewer some idea as to what he's about.

So there you have it, a bit of insight into my visually messy world. Some of these ideas will connect with you and other not at all.  If you are interested in making your images have more depth try are few of these techniques and see if they add to your way of seeing and communicating your vision to others. 

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10 Comments

William Howell's picture

Excellent article, I have been planning a Christmas portrait of the family and this is something to mull over. My kid has a bunch of kick ass statues of the Nutcracker characters, and I have been thinking of a way to include them.
Instead of background, I use them in the foreground as occlusion, what do you think?

Jonathan Castner's picture

It's worth a try. Seems like you may need a ton of depth of field to keep the all statues recognizable but if you don't try you could miss something really interesting.

Maxal Tamor's picture

This kind of "vision" is used a lot in movies, but it is not so much used for stills.
Interesting article!

Jonathan Castner's picture

Exactly. We can learn a lot by analyzing the way that the great cinema Directors Of Photography put the camera in interesting places. Not to mention how they light things. As said so many times before: get inspiration from those who do not do quite what your thing is.

Geoff Thompson's picture

Clutter is your friend."Are you kidding me? There's these tubes, wires, circuit boards, and strange stuff that I can't identify all over the place. This is great! " So maybe my studio qualifies as something I wouldn't need to tidy up if you came to do a shoot of me at work. My grandkids love it.

Jonathan Castner's picture

Wow! Love your space. It's almost as messed up as mine. I would totally dig shooting you in such a complex environment and finding subtle ways to frame you with objects that speak about the various aspects of you and your world.

Geoff Thompson's picture

Thanks Jonathan. I have been trying to clean this up recently. I live in Australia and I am not that interesting to warrant a shoot. A good article by the way. An interesting thing my film lab told me a.couple of years ago is that if you put a thin border line around a print it makes the picture look sharper. He did it for one of my prints and he was right.

Jonathan Castner's picture

Yes it's an interesting psycho-perceptual effect. Even a 2 or 3 pixel black line around the frame works to not only give a definite outline on the image but also provides through it's presence a sort of psycho-contrast thing. Forget the mumbo-jumbo but it's noticeable.

Geoff Thompson's picture

They say the camera doesn't lie but there are lots of examples where the perceived and the real are blurred.

Really interesting content, thanks for posting. I'm going to try some of these ideas (great photos, btw!).