Composition : Creating depth with visual separation

As photographers we are gifted with stereoscopic vision (i.e we see in 3D), but the images we produce are not, these exist as flat 2 dimensional windows of reality on either paper or a screen. The spatial awareness we had when capturing the image, of the relationships between object A and object B or C are missing for our viewers. Consequently this places a massive onus on us as photographers to create that sense of depth in our composition; something we can achieve through visual separation.

This technique involves creating free space around objects, ensuring we minimise visual overlaps which works to reinforce the spatial relationships between things. This ‘air’ makes it clear to a viewer that one element is behind / separate / more distant than another.

Visual separation also establishes a clear hierarchy to a composition. Elements which standout are important, those that merge into others are part of the background and less important.

Physically Avoiding Mergers

In this image a vantage point was consciously chosen where the top of the rocks (A) were free from any overlap by other elements. Framed by only the water, this negative space both flatters their detail and shape, and draws the eye into the image.

Avoiding physical overlaps creates order and flow in a composition

The furthest rock (B) is also a diagonal, which pulls the eye upward in the frame, this effect of this is helped by being kept free of any intrusions and distractions from other visual elements and would not function as well if overlapped by the shoreline of the loch (C) for example.

The background mountains (D) are also kept free of the foreground rocks (A), despite their relative size in the frame. If the rocks had overlapped the far shore, the order of the scene would have been broken as the 'foreground ' rocks would no longer be distinct from the 'background' mountains.

Shadows as separation

Visual separation doesn’t always have to be achieved through the placement of objects to avoid overlaps. You can use shadow and contrast to visually separate objects, and flatter complementary shapes or incidental symmetry within a scene.

Visual separation through use of shadow

Visual separation through use of shadow

In this example from a remote cove in Maine the vantage point chosen allowed the rocky tongue (A) to be positioned in a way that mimicked the cliffs faces either side (B and C). Whilst clearly overlapping, through the use of exposure, the shadows delineate the 2 elements to the eye, they do overlap, but don’t merge together as one.

Visual separation is not to say that objects can never ever overlap in a composition, that’s absurd. Nature isn’t that ‘clean’ or forgiving; merely that policing mergers by placement or through controlling exposure around key objects can advance the sense of depth, and keep the viewer’s eye moving in the right direction

Making space around important elements creates ordered visual hierarchy, and clarity around where and how someone should navigate through the image. Many images just don’t make ‘sense' to the eye visually where things merge together. It can be the difference between a confusing sentence, and one that’s clear and eloquently spoken.

Paul Marsden

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