Tyler’s Tips Episode 38: Create depth in your portraits


Welcome to Tyler’s Tips. Today I’m going to talk about how to create more depth in your environmental portraits. Okay, so how do we create more depth in our environmental portraits? This is one of the keys to making a great portrait of a person, or a documentary shot of a person, is to create some depth. So how do we do it? The most important thing in my opinion is diagonal lines. Super simple. You’ll see it in almost all of my photos. It’s just a really easy and really effective technique for creating the impression of depth in one of these photos.

So here’s an example. If we look at this photo of Stacy here at the Hotel Petaluma, tons of depth in this photo. A lot of the reason that it feels that way is because of those diagonal lines of the window taking us into the room. It’s a really small part of this photo. Most of the photo is just out of focus background, but that diagonal line component really brings it together and creates a feeling of depth, not just of an isolated subject.

Another really key part is keeping some of that environment in focus, in my opinion, and that’s important for two reasons. One, it keeps the subject of the image kind of connected to the environment, and I feel like that’s really important for creating the impression of depth, it doesn’t… If we just throw everything out of focus it becomes so secondary, it’s not part of the story as much anymore, but by keeping a little bit of it, and it doesn’t have to be much, in focus, it can really tie things together beautifully and accentuate that depth, because then we see the focus fall off as it goes through the image.

So, a third component which really helps with depth is the secondary highlights in the back, or some kind of a secondary visual component in the background or in the context somewhere, and this one is tricky. Excuse me, kind of losing my voice here. This one is a little tricky because if we go too far with it, it can actually start to distract from our subject, and then it’s counter-productive and it makes our image not work so well. And in this case I would argue that I’m flirting with that line, and I’ve maybe crossed it. That highlight in the background is pretty bright, and maybe it’s a bit too much. You be the judge.

Anyways, diagonal lines are the foundation of how I always try to think of this kind of thing. So here’s another example, here’s Warren. Interior architecture, by the way, is just filled with opportunities to do this. It’s so easy to find great diagonal lines inside buildings. They’re full of geometric shapes, and so it’s really easy to work with. In this case we also have, you know, going one step further, he’s actually touching the environment, like in the foreground he’s leaning against that wall, which connects him powerfully to it and it makes it work just fine when the rest is out of focus, right? Because it’s all tied together because he’s physically touching it. And it’s in focus, but that accentuates the depth and keeps him really connected to the environment, which is critical for the story.

And we have our secondary visual elements too in this hallway, and in this case I think they work better. They’re kind of abstract, it’s like a doorway and some highlights, but it’s just enough that our eye wants to go there and our brain’s kind of like, “Oh, what’s that?” It doesn’t compete with his face, but it adds a little bit more… A little bit more to it.

So, now what do we do if we don’t have the interior architecture, or some kind of a strong line in the environment? Sometimes we can just make it. So like here we got lucky, and when these guys were working for this photo, this was a documentary image for one of my clients of their internal process, they literally drew lines on this white board. This white board is a floor to ceiling wall that you can draw on, so there were no lines there to work with at all, and then they drew some lines, how cool is that?

But even going beyond that, if you look at the arm of the guy wearing the blue shirt in the back, that’s a powerful diagonal line and it pulls you, it pulls your eye all the way down towards his face. Having the two faces in line like that, it creates something like a diagonal line. It’s not exactly a diagonal line, but our brain will kind of create those angles and it’ll have the same effect, it’ll pull us further in. So a little bit… Getting a little bit creative, but essentially the same exact idea.

And going even further… Or well, before we do that, how many have noticed that I’m using these exact techniques right now? Diagonal lines everywhere, shallow focus. Same idea. Little tiny bit of it is in focus because it ties me to the context a little bit better. This stuff is pretty formulaic when you get right down to it. So, now what do you do if you can’t find any diagonal lines? Because that does happen sometimes. A lot of times when you’re shooting in nature, mother nature doesn’t do a whole lot of straight lines, and so sometimes it’s hard to find diagonals. And in that case I think the most important thing to do is to make sure that when you create that separation with the focus, leave some of the foreground sharp essentially.

So here’s an example. In this photo, we tried a bunch of versions of this composition where the woman was just isolated from the background through focus, and so what I mean by that is the background was all out of focus and there was nothing in focus in the image except the subject, and it was okay, it wasn’t bad, but it was… It just didn’t have the depth, it felt kind of flat, and I didn’t feel like it told as rich a story. And then I finally started putting the side of that tree into the composition, and it’s just a little bit, it’s not a lot.

It made all the difference, to me, in this context, and I think there are two reasons for that. One is that she is much more connected to the environment with that tree in focus. It’s hard to tell how it all kind of fits together if there’s not a little bit in focus. That’s number one, and then number two, I think as a viewer the context, the environment, which is a big part of this story, by making at least a little bit of it in focus, it’s not quite so abstract. I mean literally, it’s a little bit more you can tell exactly what’s going on there, and that detail helps bring the whole story together and make it more engaging for the viewer.

So there you are, Tyler’s tip for today. Next time you’re out shooting portraits of people or documentary shots of people and you want to try to create more depth in the images, diagonal lines are your best friend. And if you can’t do diagonal lines, always at least try to make sure you keep some pieces of the context in focus along with your subject. It’ll go a long ways to creating depth and really creating a great environmental story to tell with that picture of a person. So as always, thank you for your time. I hope you found this tip useful, and if you have any ideas or questions you’d like me to explore in a future episode, just drop me a line and I’ll work it in. Until next time.