Controlling Image Planes in Photography

Controlling Image Planes in Photography

  • An open landscape forms a continuous vista that starts at your feet and stretches away to infinity. There are no sharp divisions to break up the scenery conveniently into separate regions for the camera. Nevertheless, it's often useful to divide up the scene with imaginary boundary lines. Sliced up into zones at different distances from the camera, the landscape takes on a more manageable form.
    For most purposes, we create three zones, at progressively increasing distances from the camera: foreground, middle distance, and background. The division is completely arbitrary, and in the film industry, for example, script-writers may further divide these regions in order to specify their shots more concisely.

  • The division between adjacent zones is equally arbitrary: it would be absurd to say that the foreground extends exactly 20 feet from the camera, or that the background starts a mile away. Not every picture contains all three image-planes, either - distant scenes may be all background, with no middle distance or foreground.

  • Nevertheless, these loose definitions provide a useful vocabulary when we talk about the construction of landscape images.


  • Most pictures, of course contain more than one of the three individual planes. Interaction between different subject planes can make an image dynamic, or placid: disquieting or reassuring. Broadly speaking, the foreground is dark-toned, the middle distance is mid-toned, and the background is lighter in tone. This effect is known as aerial perspective and is caused by haze and dust. Images that reinforce each of these characteristics fulfill our preconceptions of the landscape view, and we find them comforting, or calming. Usurping any of these values, though, tends to give the landscape image uncanny qualities.

  • By exploiting the effects of light and shade you can alter aerial perspective with startling results. Reflections in a lake, for example, frequently reverse the structure of the image, so that the distant elements of the scene appear lower in the frame than closer ones, which create a visually exciting image. Storm light also produces an inversion, darkening the background while the sun lights the foreground. Similarly, low-lying mist creates striking imagery because it makes foreground detail less distinct and shrouds the background.

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