Using layers in your compositon • low angles to show the foreground • selective focusing for emphasis

Boat on Loch Foyle, at the Boathole, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. By Damien DemolderIt’s hard to create a sense of depth in a photograph, as we are trying to convey our impressions of a three dimensional scene using a flat piece of paper. To get the message over to the viewer we have to choose carefully what we show, as well as how we show it.

We are told that a 50mm lens gives the same angle of view as our eyes, when it’s mounted on a 35mm camera or full frame sensor (it’s about 35mm for APS-C sensors). Really, though, this only represents what we can concentrate on, rather than what we can actually see. There is a big difference between what we take in when we look directly at something, such as when we are talking to another person a few feet away, and what we experience when we are taking in a view or enjoying a pleasant scene. We build a profile in our heads of the atmosphere of a place not by looking in one direction or by concentrating on any single element, but by looking around ourselves, at our surroundings and the sky, and combining all the elements to create a whole and complete impression. We analyse the details, notice what is at our feet and what is in the distance, what is to the side of us, and how the place is made up.

The layers
On this morning I was enjoying the high grasses and plants as I pushed my way through their rain-wet leaves to get to the shore. Before I got to the water’s edge I stopped and took in the scene. What I was struck by was the combination of the flowers up to my waist, the stillness of the water and its gently turning boat, and the pale colours in the pre-sunrise sky. The horizon was almost out of sight in the mist, but before it was a splendid foreground, a high-contrast attention-seeking middle ground, and the shapes of the other side of the loch against the pale blue sky.

Lens choice
To get a sense of realism rather than sheer impact I used the 35mm end of a 16-35mm zoom lens, and, fitted to a tripod, dropped the camera to below the level of the flower tops. Rather than stopping down and focusing a third of the way into the scene for maximum depth of field, I focused on the flowers just a few feet in front of me. I wanted them to get the attention, as even when soft the sky, the boat, the loch and the distance could look after themselves. Viewers are going to look into the distance anyway, but by pulling the focus to the foreground it ensures they pay attention there too.

Brightness balancing
Obviously, with such a range of brightness values I wasn’t going to get the correct exposure for the flowers while still showing the colours of the sky, so I used a 0.9 (3EV) neutral density graduated filter to hold back the illumination levels of the sky and its reflection. This balanced the exposure enough so I could show all the elements within the camera’s dynamic range.

With white balance set for daylight I was able to capture the cool tones of the morning without the camera attempting to turn the scene into a Caribbean dreamscape.

I think that what I have created is a picture that has a real sense of depth that allows the viewer to place him or herself there at the scene, on that morning and see and enjoy the things I experienced too. And if you get yourself up at 4am to look at it the experience will become even more real again!

Canon EOS 1Ds III, with EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens set to 35mm, 1.6sec and f/16 at ISO 100. I used a HiTech filter system 0.9 ND graduated filter to reduce the brightness of the sky. TeamWork sells them

Shot at The Boathole on Loch Foyle, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. Click to see a map.

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Boat on Loch Foyle, at the Boathole, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. By Damien Demolder