my flickr photostream

Monday, July 13, 2009

Representing a 3D world in 2D

© 2009 Simon Hucko

Have you ever been really excited about a shot, only to open it up on your computer and discover that it didn't turn out at all how you expected? Sweeping landscapes become flat and boring. Objects in the foreground suddenly become a lot more intrusive than you remember them being. Some dynamic element suddenly seems static and uninteresting. Why does this happen?

The answer, simply, is that your brain is too smart for its own good. When you are looking at a scene, your perception of what's going on is influenced by your brain's representation of everything involved. Your eyes may not be able to see the entire stage at a concert at a given moment, but your brain knows what is there and completes the image in your mind, so that you barely notice the head that's blocking a part of your view. Your depth perception influences your interpretation of a countryside view, making it seem vast and engaging rather than the flat 2D image that your camera will capture. It's very easy to overlook flaws or distractions in the scene because that's what your brain does automatically.

The key to representing your vision in a 2D medium is to overcome your mental representation of a scene and actually see what is present in your viewfinder. You may perceive a landscape as having great depth, but if you close one eye and really look at what's in front of you, it may fall flat. There are ways to restore this feeling of depth, like making sure you have 3 planes in your photos - a foreground, middle, and background. Giving the viewer a reference to the distances involved can add depth back to your photo.

In the case of obstructions, something like a fence or a small building may not even register when you look at a scene because you have a working knowledge of what else is present. Not only does photography compress everything to two dimensions, it also removes the time element from a scene. This can greatly reduce the context of a given image, and it needs to be able to stand on its own without relying on prior knowledge of the subject. This is what is meant by saying "tell a story with your photo" - provide context to what's going on in that instantaneous capture, and the subject will take on much more meaning.

Try this exercise - grab your tripod and go out with the intention of shooting just one great shot. When you see a potential image, set up your tripod and spend a minute looking through the viewfinder. (If you don't have a tripod, you can do the same thing hand held. The tripod is there to force you to slow down and think before taking a picture, not just pointing the lens and shooting away.) Imagine that you are seeing this as a print hanging on someone's wall. Are you really seeing the same image that you had in mind when you set the tripod down? What has changed? Can you find a way to add important elements back into a scene? Is there something in the frame that will distract you or prevent you from seeing the subject? Is there a story being told in that one little slice of time? If you are satisfied with these answers, take one photo, and head back to your computer.

Open your shot in your favorite photo editor and see how well you did at predicting what the image will look like. It may take some practice, but being able to shut off your brain and really see what is there in front of you will dramatically improve your photography.

There are certainly times to "spray and pray" (ie shoot a lot of frames in the hope that at least one of them will be decent), but you shouldn't rely on it every time. Learn how to slow down and really make an image.



  1. Hmm I honestly never thought about this much, but I'm glad you pointed it out. It definitely is frustrating when real life AMAZING scenes come out flat. I think that's why I like playing with blurs (or if I'm not cheating and use the camera instead of Photoshop: focus :P) so much.

  2. Ansel Adams called this "pre-visualization". Of course, it's a bit easier to do under a hood, gazing at the ground glass of an 8X10 view camera. And, since the image is flipped top-to-bottom, and flopped left-to-right, your brain doesn't recognize it as easily and play "fill in the blanks" games.