Eight visual depth cues to add texture to images

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View of downtown Minneapolis from Loring Park with Loring Pond in the foreground. A shirtless man seeks relief from the sun on a shaded bench.
Visual depth cues convey space, size, color, lighting, textural gradients, interposition, time and perspective.

Visual interpretation happens simultaneously on two different levels. Human eyes see color, form, depth and movement before the brain begins the slower cognitive processes of vision. The four major visual cues are basic compositional theories every photographer needs to know to consistently create memorable images. Since creation is generally about communicating messages, knowing how to maximize the natural workings of the human eye increases the legibility of content. Let’s begin the discussion with visual depth cues.

Depth is perhaps the most important visual cue because capturing environmental elements provides viewers with additional context and information. Newspaper producers know that the viewer’s eye is first drawn to the large images, then to the cutline (news speak for caption), and then the headline and story. If the only thing the viewer sees is the image, then the photograph needs to convey much of the story’s meaning.

Environmental objects provide sense of space

Filling the frame with the downtown Minneapolis skyline is a tempting compositional choice. After all, the scene opening the article is a picturesque view of the skyline with a lovely pond in the foreground. However, not including any foreground elements from Loring Park doesn’t make the skyscrapers stand out. The eye doesn’t see immediate points of interest because the skyline is too far away to make a lasting visual impact.

Using the branch and benches in the foreground puts the park space into its environmental context. The shade, another visual depth cue, produces a layer. The benches and man produce another layer that frames the top two-thirds of the photograph. Tree branches on the top left provide another small frame for the skyline. Instead of downtown looking absolutely tiny, including these elements provides the eye a comparison that helps interpret distance.

Size is everything (sorry fellas)

Man in black leather jacket observes painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. A little girl in a multi-colored jacket sits on a bench admiring a large painting of an olden times aristocratic woman.
The size of the man in the background provides the viewer a comparison to judge the height of the large painting hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Knowing the actual size of an object makes it easier for the visual cortex to interpret size and determine distance. You’ve probably noticed numerous images of small objects photographed with quarters or pennies for easy size comparisons. Although we don’t know the exact size of the man in the image above, he is essentially at the same distance as the large painting. The placement clearly communicates to the viewer that the middle one is larger than life. If the man wasn’t included, viewers are less likely to realize its scope, or infer why the little girl was captured by it.

Varied lighting intensity creates 3-D effect

Portrait of a dog sleeping in a ray of sunlight on a wood floor.
Sunlight that beams inside from windows and filters through trees provides opportunity to use its varied intensity as a visual depth cue to emphasize three-dimensional objects.

Light intensities that vary also communicate depth. Photographing the dog sleeping in a sun beam from the side and using a smaller f-stop emphasizes the shadows. Although this image isn’t as deep as the skyline from a park, the contrast created by the angle of sunlight and the exposure gives the portrait a greater three-dimensional look and feel.

Changes in lighting intensity are just about everywhere, especially at outdoor shooting locations. Always lookout for lighting conditions and take advantage of those opportunities.

Textural gradients fade into distance

View of a rural road located on south side of the Big Island of Hawaii.
A lookout on the south side of the Big Island of Hawaii provided an opportunity to capture the depth of the landscape through texture, color, and form.

Difference in the sizes of the same of object-type create the illusion of depth. The trees in the foreground area are larger and easier for the eye to discern in detail. When the eye travels toward to the top of the image, they become smaller and then eventually become a blob of dark green coloring.

The road is also an example of the visual cue of form. The line it creates leads the viewer’s eye from bottom to top. Additionally, the color of green in the foreground is much lighter than the green in the background. These two elements are additional visual depth cues that accentuate the textural gradient.

Magazine designers love interposition

Downtown Minneapolis seen through large oak tree branches located in Hiawatha Park.
Placing tree branches in front of downtown Minneapolis emphasizes the distance between the two subjects.

Graphic designers commonly use interposition when designing magazine covers. Models are placed in front of a headline or title in order to create a three-dimensional illusion. Downtown Minneapolis interposed with the winding oak branches in the foreground creates a frame, emphasizes the distance of downtown from Hiawatha Park, and provides the same effect.

Visual depth cues for another time

Using forced perspective, a man appears to be performing a yoga pose on the back of a red rocking horse tree ornament.
Perspective is the most complicated visual cue because it involves learned behavior, but that is story for another time.

There are eight visual depths cues in total but perspective, color, and time are all topics for another time. They warrant individual articles or series that do the subjects justice for the reader. Gestaltists can wait. However, we have already had some fun using forced perspective.

Each one of the eight visual cues will be revisited in greater detail. We have covered some aspects of color already. Which visual depth cue should be covered next? What are some of your favorite depth shots? Let us know in the comments!

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