5 Techniques That Create Depth & Make Your Cinematography More Dynamic

"Vanishing Point" by Terrance Lam
Credit: Terrance Lam Photography
How do you create depth when you're working with a two-dimensional medium?

One of the first things you learn about when studying cinematography is composition, and one of the first things you learn about composition is basic aesthetic theory: symmetry vs. asymmetry, energy, color, weight, vertices, etc. Then, somewhere near the end of the class, the back of your text book, the final two minutes of the seminar, you hear about depth -- not because it's unimportant, but because creating it takes a little more finesse than centering your subject in the frame.

The greatest cinematographers are known for (among other things) creating the illusion of depth by using a number of clever techniques and here to break down five of them in this 3-minute video is award-winning commercial cinematographer Matthew Rosen.

Here are the techniques Rosen explains in his video:

High Contrast Lighting

Good lighting can not only add dimension and depth to your compositions, but it can make your film look like a million bucks. As Rosen says in the video, soft, even lighting tends to flatten images, while lighting with harsher shadows with fast falloff tends to give the illusion of depth. For examples of this kind of lighting, you can't get any more drastic and overt than film noir, who made chiaroscuro lighting one of its many hallmarks.


We're talking shallow depth of field here -- the same effect that happens when your eyes focus on something close to you. Naturally, when we see this on-screen, our brains interpret it as depth. (However, deep depth of field doesn't, by contrast, suggest lack of depth. Gregg Toland, for example, expertly plays with deep focus in the iconic shot in Citizen Kane.)


If you're a pro and have any kind of experience, you know that using shallow depth of field is kind of -- well -- let's just say it's the thing you do the most when you first get your hands on a camera with a good lens. When you mature as a filmmaker/cinematographer, you realize that you've got to get your hands dirty, get a little creative, move around -- um -- change your perspective. The great thing about this technique, is that it not only creates depth, but it raises the aesthetic energy of a composition. Using many different vertices makes the shot much more dynamic.


Like perspective (an high contrast lighting, too), the parallax effect serves to create depth, as well as to make the shot more dynamic. It does this by adding "kinetic energy" -- aesthetic energy created by moving the camera. A static shot adds little (if any) aesthetic energy to a shot, but a moving camera can turn what was once a boring still shot into a scene that pulls your audience in. In fact, it's often said that adding a moving camera and moving subjects (e.g. people, cars, etc.) is the equation for high kinetic -- and therefore aesthetic -- energy. In other words, if you move your camera around people and things that are also moving, your shot will probably look awesome.


The same thing that happens in the natural world -- things that are closer to our eyes block out things that are further when they pass in front of them. Simple as pie -- though the thought of using this effect may not be as obvious when planning your shots in pre-production.

There are many more techniques you can use to create depth, but hopefully these five will at least get you started making more dynamic shots.     

You Might Also Like

Your Comment


Rather useful article (as per). Love the camera work / lighting in Kane, would actually love to shoot black and white one day.

December 3, 2014 at 2:19AM

George Pearton

Click that button in post. Ta-da!

December 3, 2014 at 10:11PM


I wish more people understood that there is a time and a place for everything in regard to shallow DoF.

December 5, 2014 at 1:22PM

Jeremy Parsons
Director of Photography / 1st Assistant Camera / Crane Tech

I'm worried that cinematography is appealing increasingly to the ADHD generation. The camera never rests anymore. Not everything's an action movies or a sports advert. I've just rewatched Annie Hall, and it's been great seeing a movie where a character story is so well served by the camerawork and lighting

December 6, 2014 at 8:17AM

Dan Horne

Agreed. How many times in indie cinematography do you see an unnecessary slider move with objects calling attention to themselves in the foreground rather than the scene playing out? THAT is my biggest pet peeve: camera moves that happen for no reason and cause me to stop thinking about the plot or characters and focus on the camera work.

December 20, 2014 at 7:48AM

Harry Pray IV
Director of Photography/Lighting Technician/Colorist

Agreed Jeremy Parsons is 142 points worth, Because George Pearton is only 11/142 as good as Jeremy he should get 11 points. Can you guys tell who is the maths teacher in the nofilmschool??? :)

December 7, 2014 at 1:37AM


Nice! It's interesting how I've used many of these without realizing why... Always good to study technique and the why behind it!

Thanks for sharing!

December 11, 2014 at 2:00AM

Angelina Sereno

Mathew Rosen is a maestro with the camera. Wonder what he's been working on in the past three years since this was posted.

Here are some other great tips, tricks, and techniques for aspiring DPs - http://bit.ly/2x9XU9k

September 18, 2017 at 6:01PM