3D World in a 2D Space: Creating Depth in Our Photography

All photographers inherently face the same dilemma in creating depth in photography. The images we capture are an attempt at depicting how we humans see and experience the world in three dimensions via a two-dimensional medium. Meaning, the way we view images, whether it be a screen or a print on paper, is flat. (And, let’s face it — flat can be bor-ring.)

But, your work does not need to be flat and boring! 

Fortunately for us photographers, the human brain is often quite susceptible to some visual trickery. Depth and added visual interest can be gained in your images by applying a few relatively simple techniques that can help render the illusion of three dimensions within the two-dimensional limitations of photography.

Speaking of 2D limitations: it makes me reminisce about the days of playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES video gaming system (boy, do I feel old). Mario dashed and smashed in simple, side-screen action. Sure, it was innovative (and super fun) at the time. But, when compared to modern gaming, it’s (let’s say it together) super flat and boring

Most games are no longer two-dimensional, unidirectional and side-scrolling. Many games — especially popular first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Doom (2016) — not only are great at conveying action in three dimensions on a flat screen but also have a way of drawing the viewer into the image in order to experience the action. This is achieved in pretty much the same manner you can (and will) create imagery that will do the same for your viewers.

We also need to consider that the human brain experiences the world around us through two eyes which allow us to see in three dimensions; this is a clear advantage when viewing real life in actual 3D.

And, I know what you’re thinking: But my camera uses only one lens, not two. True. An astute observation. But we shouldn’t let that stop us.

Even when viewing the real world through two eyes (or I guess you could say two lenses), still, the brain gets help interpreting our situation and environment through visual cues such as: how elements in a scene create lines that can draw attention or lead the eyes in a certain direction; the size of the thing we are looking at compared to its surroundings; the way objects, the land, people and creatures appear in size and are viewed as or overlap in layers; the lighting in a particular area, the way the shadows and highlights separate elements and create contrast.

These are the same techniques used in video games (minus the actual movement, of course).

And, you as a photographer can apply these cues to your single-lens work to give your 2D images a 3D look. By capturing your frame in a manner that applies one or more of these concepts, you can not only give the viewer something engaging to look at but captivate them and draw them into an experience!

Now, let’s dive into a few tools and concepts that will help you on your road to deeper imagery as well as how these techniques will prompt viewers to perceive your attempts to render our 3D world in a 2D space.

Light, Lines and Layers (…and Lenses)

First of all — The title is in no particular order; it just sounded good this way. And, let me just say: I love some alliteration. But, I digress…

Just for fun (actually, for convenience), I’m going to approach this from last to first — lenses to light. Each is a productive method for adding depth whether used alone or together.


Lens choice and settings (and your feet) can be a big part of how much depth you are able to convey in an image as these factors directly affect depth of field [DOF].

Quiz time!

Going back to the basics of your photographic journey, what exposure control on your camera also affects depth of field?

If you said ISO, you’re…WRONG. (haha.)

The answer is, of course: Aperture!

However, aperture is but one part of the DOF equation. More on that in just a bit — I promise.

But, before we get too far into this topic, let’s talk specifically about depth of field as it relates to photography for a moment.

In so many words, DOF is the area from front to back (or depth) within the scene being photographed that will be in focus (or sharp) in relation to your intended subject(s) or focal plane. You might even say: it’s how deep your focal plane is. If you want to really simplify it, I guess you could say: it’s how much of your picture will be blurry and how much sharp. You decide what works for you.

DOF is often referred to as how deep (i.e., large DOF with more area in focus) or shallow (i.e., short DOF with less area in focus).

As promised — mainly, there are THREE things that affect DOF: 

1) Aperture; 

2) Focal Length; 

3) Distance to subject (from the camera).

And, typically, all will be considered and used together to achieve your desired DOF.

So, how does all this relate to lenses? 

Well, every lens has a focal length range or a set focal length (e.g., 24-70mm; 85mm). 

And, every lens has a maximum aperture range that is dependent on your zoom/chosen focal length (e.g., a 50-250mm f/4.5-7.1 where you can set f/4.5 at 50mm but only f/7.1 starting at 85mm) or a single maximum aperture consistent through the range of focal lengths (e.g., a 70-200mm f/2.8, 2.8 being possible at 70mm through 200mm; a 50mm f/1.2 prime lens).

Via your lens choice, you now have control over two aspects of DOF — aperture and focal length. This just leaves the camera’s distance to the subject. 

Well — You don’t need to be helped any longer; you’ve always had the power to control distance-to-subject, Dorothy.

I have!?

Yup. Just move them feet.

In terms of aperture, the larger or wider the aperture (smaller f-stop number) will give you that shallower DOF with more blur; a smaller or narrower aperture (larger f-stop number) will afford a deeper DOF allowing more of the scene to be in focus.

But now, let’s add focal length. Typically, wider (shorter) focal lengths (e.g., 15mm; 24mm) will afford a deeper DOF due to its wider field of view or perspective. Even at a wide aperture, wide angle lenses can maintain a fairly deep DOF. 

Left: shot at 15mm f/4, most of the image is in focus; this represents a deep DOF.
Right: shot with a long focal length from a close distance, the combination created a very shallow DOF.

Telephoto lenses, however, have narrower (longer) focal lengths (e.g., 200mm; 500mm), therefore have a narrower field of view which often puts more focus on the subject. This innately creates a DOF that is shallower compared to wide angles. Being more zoomed in (i.e., using a longer focal length) on your subject paired with a wide aperture will give you a very shallow DOF.

And, of course, factor in the camera’s distance to your subject and you can further control your DOF. Simply, being close[r] to your subject will create a shallower DOF; farther from your subject, DOF will be deeper. But, nothing is ever that simple — am I right?

Let’s say you want the deepest of deep DOF. If you use your widest focal length lens, set it to f/22 and stand far away from your subject (with no other elements in view between you and the subject), you can achieve a seemingly infinite DOF with everything in the frame [acceptably] in focus. 

If you desire the opposite: take your fastest and longest lens, open the aperture up as wide as it will go, and stand as close to your subject as your lens will allow. You will get an extremely shallow DOF.

Now that you understand how the lens comes into play, I’m sure you can think of the ways depth of field affects the conveyed depth of your image (I mean, it’s literally in the name — depth of field).

A shallower DOF will inherently place more focus on a subject while still providing some semblance of the surroundings, blurred maybe just enough to not detract from the subject.

The deeper your DOF, less emphasis is placed on any one thing, and essentially, the flatter your image may appear. This does not mean depth or focus cannot be conveyed in your photo; however, the in-/out-of-focus aspect will play a much smaller role, if any at all.

So, lenses and how you use them make a difference.


I believe that moving from depth of field into layers is an effective transition in the creating image-depth game. Why? 

Often when we layer objects within our frame, DOF comes into play because as elements in our frame overlap, focus is usually only on one of those layers. And, depending on our settings and choices (like we just discussed in Lenses), one or more of your layers not containing your subject is likely to fall outside your DOF causing them to blur at least to some extent.

When it comes to layering elements within your frame, there’s essentially no limit to what overlaps what. If it can fit in your frame, and you want it in your frame — it’s entirely your call. 

However, layers can typically be broken down into three areas: foreground, middle ground and background.

Foreground being the stuff closest to the camera. Background — the stuff farthest from the camera. And middle ground is stuff that is, well…in the middle.

To help you better conceptualize, let’s do a short exercise demonstrating the effect of layers…without a camera! Oh my! 

First, pick a background and focus on it. Look out a window or even just across the room. Just make sure your line of sight is unobstructed. The backdrop is clear and in focus, correct? It alone probably lacks dimension if it’s just a wall or distant landscape (again, this is not necessarily a bad thing). 

Next, set up a foreground. Put an object, person, etc. relatively close to you (but far enough that allows your eyes to focus on it) and within line of sight to your background. Looking past it to the background should blur the foreground. Switch focus to the foreground item and the background goes out of focus.

Last, introduce something to the middle ground. Find something to put between your foreground and background, about halfway, if possible. Focus on that. It is sharp and the background and foreground are blurry, yes? And, switch focus to the background. Depending on the distance, the foreground and the new object is blurred and the background is now sharp. And, same concept when changing focus to the foreground.

You should be able to see from this exercise how layers, even in real life, provide our eyes and therefore our minds with the cues that allow us to perceive multiple dimensions in a space. The same is achievable in photography.

Here you see background, middle ground and foreground and the effect focusing on one area has on the others — an example of the results you experienced in the camera-free exercise except with photographs. 

Another aspect I like to consider along with layers is object size. The size of the elements in your frame in relation to where they are placed or layered will accent depth within your image and help govern the viewer’s perception.

The size and placement of the various items within your frame can play a big part in how your brain interprets the scene within your image, whether it be how each object appears in proportion to the rest or because of how our minds have been conditioned visually over the years to know the general size of an object. Often, these two aspects — size and placement — work together.

Take for example a simple outdoor portrait shoot. Your model poses at the edge of a rocky shoreline, gazing out across the expanse of water before her. The image is a medium to close shot of the model. And, off in the distance is a stretch of land on the horizon; upon it is a host of highrises and skyscrapers. But, in the image even the tallest buildings appear to be no taller than the model, if not smaller.

Subconsciously (and maybe consciously), our minds are telling us that buildings are much larger than people, but even massive constructs at a vast distance will appear small. 

In real life or in an image, our minds can interpret depth by the disparity in size of the elements themselves as pictured as well as in contrast to the other elements in the image of which we are aware of the general size.

Here are examples of how size and placement in a layered image can help communicate depth. 
In the left and middle images, we know that chess pieces are not larger than human heads; we also know that people are not taller than mountains. This tells the viewer that the smaller thing is much closer to the camera.
On the right, is a foreground, middle, and background, all disproportionate in size to each other.. Additionally, the size of the telephone poles reduce from right to left. Both factor into the viewer’s perception of depth within the photo.


This is just one example of how using lines can convey depth in imagery. Again, even in the real world, lines affect our perception. And in photography, you can capture lines in your photos that guide the viewer deeper into the frame. Or, lead the eyes around your image perpetually or to land on an intended spot.

Have you ever stood in the middle of a long road and looked for the end? Or stood at the bottom of a tall, expansive staircase and gazed up? What happens? The road and the stairs look larger up close and appear to get smaller with distance, possibly disappearing altogether depending on the distance.

The types of lines that typically have this effect are aptly referred to as: vertical, horizontal, diagonal and curved.

Notice how the shelves and floorboards create lines that lead the eyes into the image to the old bicycle.

Vertical lines, in my humble opinion, are the least effective in terms of image depth. However, they still have their place, even if they just work when combined with other lines or elements in the frame.

Strong vertical lines in imagery often appear more  often to convey a particular quality or bolster an intended message or story; they don’t often lead the eye or create much in terms of depth in a photo. What they can do is segment your frame to create some division from side to side within your image. Where this is not the typical front-to-back we might think of in terms of depth, vertical lines can create separation within the frame. 

They can also be used effectively to contribute to layering within an image. Think of the uprights of a gate, trees along a path, buildings lining a street, electrical poles along the road. Maybe they start shorter and get longer toward the back or vice versa. This sizing effect is a result of depth, and in a photo, it conveys that depth to the viewer.

Horizontal lines, like vertical, do not necessarily lead a viewer in or out of a frame. But, what they are good for is effective placement of elements of your image, especially the subject or background, on a horizon line. 

For example, a rickety, dilapidated shack on the horizon of an open field placed on the lower third would afford room to include a backdrop of an expanse of snowy mountains adorned with an array of fractured sunlight escaping through cracks in the gloomy, transforming cloud cover. Maybe the smaller foreground area provides a glimpse of the landscape that leads up to the shack.

When horizon comes into play, take time to think of its placement in your composition to maximize its effect.

This photo of the interior of St. Ignatius Mission in Montana contains three types of lines — vertical, horizontal, and diagonal converging lines. The floor and ceiling lines converge toward the center; vertical lines are created by the windows and the sides of the pews that get smaller approaching the center. And, the stage in the center is placed near the bottom third of the image allowing a smaller yet effective foreground and a grand view of the ornate ceiling.

Diagonal lines might be my favorite way of creating depth. Unlike horizontal and vertical lines that do more subdividing of the frame, diagonal lines do the actual leading in or out of the image.

Going back to the long road and tall staircase from the opening paragraph: these are representative of diagonal lines; but, more specifically, illustrate how converging lines can lead to a vanishing point. 

Once again, this is seen out in the real world, more than you probably realize because you’re so used to it. But, this illusion of narrowing, potentially vanishing lines is a quintessential three-dimensional phenomenon. To a static observer, parallel lines will converge with distance in three-dimensional space. 

In photography, even in the deepest depth of field image, converging lines almost always depict depth (unless your photo is of a pyramid or just a triangle; then, well…you get it).

Additionally, adding an object of focus at some point along those converging lines not only can further convey depth but possibly motion, also. 

Seeing the back of a person within converging lines (probably a sidewalk) and the front of another person of slightly larger size closer to a bottom corner of the frame would not only tell the viewer one person is closer than the other but would subtly communicate the two are likely moving — walking in opposite directions on the sidewalk.

Lastly, curved lines are another tool in the photographer’s bag. Just as diagonal lines can converge to a vanishing point or simply lead a viewer’s eyes in or out of the frame, curved lines can also converge (i.e., think a stream or winding road) and are also excellent for guiding a viewer around an image. 

Curved lines best serve an image for these purposes when they are fluid and intentional and are limited in quantity so as to not create confusion for the viewer.

The curved rocky path winds and converges near the upper right third of the frame leading the viewer directly to the walker.


Last, but definitely not least, there is light. And while all photography is “drawing” with light, not all light is good.

Most seasoned photographers and even many new to the trade know: When is it the worst to photograph anything outdoors? 

In the harsh midday light on a clear day!

Everything looks shiny and blown out. Shadows virtually disappear eliminating contrast. The sky is too bright compared to land. Sometimes the water, too. 


In such light, you have to rely on other methods to capture the depth you want (but even then, deep down you’re ashamed and know it’s going to look like garbage anyway…why even bother).

Essentially, you need contrast — highlights and shadows, darks and whites — to show the depth of a scene or subject; to accentuate curves and angles to show shape; to separate or bring focus to one or more subjects and detract from the rest.

On the left, low, early evening light from the side shadows the trunk’s side and reveals dimension in the moss and bark, as well as casts shadows of nearby tree limbs across it. This represents how shadows can accentuate shape and therefore project depth. 
On the right, the lighting shadows and highlights the details of the dried grass stalks in a way that not only pulls them off the background but gives the illusion of the stalks emerging from darkness.

And fortunately, photographers have that control: we can practice seeing the light, we can create, alter and shape light in scenes with strobes, bounces and scrims, and we can plan. Planning can get you to the right place at the right time to capture that just-right light.

In that manner, we can use the light as we see fit to turn what might be flat, lifeless and dull into a dynamic work of art that pops off the page or screen.


Alright, all you ambitious photographers! And, if you made it through this entire article, you must truly be ambitious (or maybe just a little off your tripod). Either way — you have some new tools and tricks to take your images to another level. It’s time to take your newly learned know-how and go practice, practice, practice. 

With time you will hone these concepts into skills of a second-nature and will be able to apply them to any shot you desire. 

But remember: these are not hard and fast rules to produce great images. You may not care or worry about creating depth, and that’s okay. Your best work is always the stuff you produce that you enjoy and carries your own personal signature style. 

But, styles, methodologies and interests change. So, stay open. Try new things. Try everything.

And, regardless of all else:

Shoot, and shoot some more. Then, shoot even more. 

If you would like to learn about creating maximum depth of field using focus stacking check this article out!


  • Chris Woods

    Chris Woods is a studio and landscape photographer and aspiring writer currently residing in Missoula, Montana. He is a recent graduate of Rocky Mountain School of Photography's Professional Intensive program. After almost 13 years in the U.S. Navy, Chris decided to change directions career-wise. He returned to school to finish a degree in Media Production and Journalism. After graduation, he and his family -- his lovely wife and wonderful daughter -- relocated to Missoula so he could attend RMSP. In his free time, Chris enjoys spending time with his family, writing, hiking, endurance sports, playing music and singing, and of course, photography.