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How to Add Dimension to Photos

By Kristen Duke on January 14, 2014


Photographs are one-dimensional. Whether it's a print on paper or an image on the computer, it's flat. Adding perceived dimension to a flat image is what sets great photography apart from run-of-the-mill point and shoot images. Dimension in photography adds a lifelike or realistic quality to an image — this is also called depth of field. It feels like it’s two- or three-dimensional, like you could reach out and grab it. I'll share a few ways to add dimension to your images using certain lenses, as well as aperture, distance, and framing.

Aperture: Knowing how to control and manipulate your aperture is one of the key aspects of great photography. Many factors are involved, such as using the proper lens that allows for a wide aperture. Shooting wide open translates into a low number, such as f1.4 or 1.8. With this wide aperture, it will allow your main focal point to be crisp and in focus with the background blurred or out of focus, creating depth or dimension to the image. Distracting elements will be thrown out of focus, drawing the eye into the subject. In the image below, I captured a tree limb budding with beautiful pink flowers across a perfect blue sky. I set my aperture to 1.4 and focused on just one of the tree branches; this left the rest of the image slightly blurred. It seems more realistic and lifelike with that added dimension, with a more artistic quality to the image.

How to Add Dimension to Photos

Distance: Creating distance between the subject and the background also allows for greater dimension in an image. The short distance from the palm of your hand to your shoulder is enough to create depth when holding an object out at arm’s length. Whenever I am photographing a small product that fits in a person’s hand, I like to imitate the image below, with the focus set on the object and the person blurred in the background. A lower aperture number (1.4) also helps achieve this look.

How to Add Dimension to Photos

Likewise, standing 3-5 feet away from a background wall will create more depth (even at the same aperture) as it would if the subject has their back right up against the wall.

Framing: Using the foreground to frame a shot creates a unique perspective for the viewer. Whether I'm photographing a room, people, or objects, having the foreground just out of focus creates more visual interest to the subject in focus — it draws the eye in.

How to Add Dimension to Photos

Lenses: I fell in love with my 50mm lens from the moment I got it. But when I tried out the 85mm, I fell even harder! The bokeh, or background blur from the 85mm is so much more prominent on the same aperture setting, which enticed me to never take it off of my camera. The 85mm lens is my go-to lens for individual portraits, and I even use it for family shots when I have enough space to step back and still capture the entire family. Because it is more of a zoom (35mm more), it creates more depth. Below is an example of how the dimension varies, displayed from 35mm-50mm-85mm lenses.

How to Add Dimension to Photos

So if you'd like to add dimension, or more lifelike qualities to your images, follow the suggestions above. Understanding how to use manual settings (say NO to auto!), will greatly increase the power of using these tools as well. Images taken on the automatic setting are much more flat, or one-dimensional. Shooting on manual settings allows you to use the depth and dimension in the steps above.

Bonus: You can learn photography from the world's largest and longest running photography school! Enroll online and get started with the New York Institute of Photography today.

About the Author

Kristen Duke is a self-taught photographer, author, teacher, and mother of four. She has been a professional portrait photographer for 10 years. Kristen also brings photography and DIY projects together in her creative and colorful blog, Capturing Joy. She also encourages readers to get pictures off of the computer and onto the walls of their homes in a series called Decorating with Portraits.