Depth can be a powerful tool in photography. Our medium is two-dimensional, but a sense of depth, an illusion of space and distance, can make the viewer feel like part of the scene, and literally and figuratively add another dimension to a photograph.
A Common Formula
This image of El Capitan follows a common formula for creating a three-dimensional effect in landscape photographs: find an interesting foreground (preferably with some leading lines), get the camera low and close to that foreground, and use a wide-angle lens.
A wide-angle lens by itself can’t create a sense of depth. Wide-angle lenses make things look smaller, and therefore more distant, but if everything looks small and distant there’s no sense of depth. The 3-D effect only happens when you put the wide-angle lens close to something in the foreground. That proximity makes the foreground look big, but things in the background still look small. The optics create an exaggerated size difference between near and far objects, and our brains interpret that as depth and distance.
This wide-angle, near-far look is common today, but it wasn’t always so. Though he wasn’t the first to use this perspective, master landscape photographer David Muench popularized this technique through his many beautiful books, and a lot of people have followed his lead.
But this look has become so popular that I think landscape photographers have stopped looking for other ways to create a sense of depth, and by doing that we’ve limited our options. We owe it to ourselves and our viewers to explore other paths, and create images with depth and meaning that go beyond this one formula.