Five Ways to Add More Depth to Your Portraits

Piet Van den Eynde

Image 1: A portrait of a rickshaw driver in Varanasi, India, lit with a 600 Ws battery-powered studio strobe, a truckload of ND filters, and an SMDV Alpha 110 Speedbox.

FUJIFILM X-Pro2, XF16mm F1.4 R WR, 1/250 sec @ f/1.8, ISO 200


Reality is three-dimensional (and that's without including the fourth dimension—time). On the other hand, a photograph only has two dimensions: width and height. It's the reason that photographs are sometimes only a flat reminder of what our eyes and senses perceived when we pressed the shutter button. Yet there are a number of things you can do to infuse a feeling of depth into your images, and I'll explore five of them and explain how they all work together in the image above (Image 1).

1. Work with a Wide-Angle Lens

If you’ve ever shot a scene with a telephoto lens, you've probably noticed that it compresses perspective. Shooting with a wide-angle lens, however, exaggerates perspective and can create dramatic leading lines in your images that help convey that 3D feeling. The main thing to look out for is not to put people at the very edges of your frame because they will get distorted. In this image, I placed my subject more or less according to the rule of thirds so I was safe. You also have to get close enough (I was about 3 feet away); otherwise, your subject will be too small in the frame.

2. Use Shallow Depth of Field

I shoot in Aperture priority nearly 95% of the time. Adjusting your aperture is probably one of the most important (yet easiest) decisions that you can make as a photographer to give your image a specific aesthetic. For portraiture—even an environmental portrait like this one—I like to work with a shallow depth of field; the aim of the background is to inform, not to dominate. Choosing a wide-open aperture separates my foreground from my background, which in turn adds dimensionality to my image. Unfortunately, this second tip sort of conflicts with the first because wide-angle lenses inherently have a larger apparent depth of field, even at relatively wide-open apertures of say f/4. So for this image, that’s why I used a fast prime lens, the Fujinon XF 16mm f/1.4, and I used it almost wide open (at f/1.8). In full frame terms, this lens would be equivalent to a 24mm f/2.1. As you can see from the image, by getting close enough to your subject, you can still blur the background sufficiently in order to get some separation. Because I was also using flash (see tip #4), I had to keep my shutter speed at the X-Pro 2’s flash sync speed of 1/250 of a second. This would normally have given me an aperture of f/22, so I used a couple of ND filters to get the aperture back to f/1.8.

3. Use Backlight

Backlight is another classic technique to add depth to your images. Not only does it give you a nice rim of light around your subject (separating it from the background), but the dramatic shadows it casts can make for great leading lines.

Image 2: Backlight in action. I love the leading lines the shadows create and how fabrics become almost translucent. 

FUJIFILM X-E1, XF14mmF2.8 R, 1/300 sec @ f/ 14, ISO 800

4. Use Artificial Light at the Right Angle

Using backlight leaves your subject’s face in the shade. That's not always a problem, but if you want to add legibility to the face, you can add a flash (as I did in Image 1). I like to combine natural backlight from the sun with flash. For Image 1, I placed a flash to the side in what is known as a “short lighting” setup, meaning that I lit the side of the face that was turned away from the camera. Short lighting gives more depth and drama than if you lit the side of the face that is turned towards the camera (or “broad lighting”).

Image 3: For this image, the flash was more in line with the camera angle. The result looks a lot flatter and less three-dimensional than the first image in this post, where the flash was at more of an angle. Also, as this was shot at f/13 (without ND filters), the background becomes really busy (perhaps too much so).

FUJIFILM X-Pro2, XF10-24mmF4 R OIS, 1-250 sec. bij f – 13, ISO 200

5. Add Selective Sharpening and Blurring in Post-Production

When you get the basics right in camera, you can further enhance the three-dimensional feel with some careful dodging and burning, where brightening things brings them closer to the viewer's eye, and darkening elements makes them recede in the frame. You can do the same with contrast by adding it locally to areas you want to be prominent, and lowering it to subdue specific parts of your image. Finally, a great way to add that three-dimensional feel to your image is by selectively sharpening parts of it. I like to use Lightroom’s Clarity slider for that effect, in combination with a Radial Filter, Graduated Filter or an Adjustment Brush. Make sure to only add Clarity to the in-focus parts of your image, as adding Clarity to out-of-focus parts will only ruin whatever beautiful bokeh your expensive f/1.4 gave you. If you’re a Lightroom CC user, the judicious use of a brush or Radial/Graduated filter with Dehaze can also help to add a feeling of depth.

 If you want to know more about how to make Lightroom work best for you, check out Lightroom 6/CC Unmasked and Dodge & Burn: Leading the Eye with Lightroom and Photoshop.

Piet Van den Eynde is a Belgian freelance photographer, author, and trainer specializing in Adobe Lightroom. When he's not teaching or writing, he travels the world on his bicycle photographing the people he meets along the way. Find him online at



Lightroom & Photoshop Piet Van den Eynde

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