Richard Hartley in Sierra Nevada

Creating Depth in Landscape Photography

DxO PhotoLab 7 and the Nik Collection

Creating depth in landscape photography is a challenge that can be resolved in a few different ways, ranging from point of sharp focus, through leading lines to foreground interest. These solutions happen in camera, but what can we do in processing to increase the perception of depth in our photography?

The human eye is way quicker and way more complex and sensitive that any camera sensor. So the first thing we need to do is to understand what it is that we are looking at and the common characteristics of that view in order to reproduce some of these things in processing.

The Area of Sharp Focus

The first thing, and it’s not immediately obvious because our eyes adjust so quickly, is the area of sharpest focus, most contrast and detail is the foreground, the things nearest to the viewer. Generally we then raise our eyes to the background, travelling through the middle ground. We can tease the eye into repeating this journey in a two dimensional photograph by using things like leading lines, brightness, contrast and so on.

The Brightest Thing

The second thing to realise is the eye is almost always drawn to the brightest thing in a view.

Contrast in the Distance

In nature, because of a number of physical characteristics of air, water and so on, things in the distance are usually less contrasty than things in the foreground, lack the color range and the definition.

Creating depth in landscape photography
Picos de Europa

In this photograph for example, which has had minimal editing, the layers change tone, losing color as they recede towards the horizon. This emphasises the feeling of depth on the image. The deer are peering into a huge distance. In actual fact what the deer are viewing would look much the same in color and contrast as the foreground of the photograph.

Color in the Distance

The range of colours generally falls off in landscape photography as you approach the horizon. It is common for the distant horizon to take on a blue or green/blue cast. Check the picture above and the one at the top of the article. Both have a blue cast in the top half of the image. This tells our brain, “This is farther away”.

Less is More

The key to all of this, in producing photographs that look convincingly natural is to observe what happens in nature and emulate it with a steady and calm hand. Photo editing software is powerful and not designed solely for landscape photography so less is more if your aim is realism.

Tools to Use

These tools are available in most photo editing software. The things I am going to demonstrate are found in DxO PhotoLab and some plugins from the Nik Collection, but Adobe Lightroom for example can deliver these edits just as effectively.

DxO PhotoLab

Contrast and the Tone Curve

In PhotoLab, we can use Contrast to create a small amount of global sharpness and the Tone curve to enhance that contrast to suit the image in front of us. Note that the contrast slider is programmed to emulate an S-Curve in the Tone Curve tool and increasing contrast here creates a uniform boost to the lights and depth to the darks. Uniform will only get you so far, so I tend to use the Contrast tool sparingly and the Tone curve to add specific tweaks to whichever area of the curve need them.

Color Grading

Shadows are generally cooler than highlights, so we can use the color grading tools to emphasise this in our image. Similarly we can use the white balance in conjunction with linear gradients to subtly adjust the color temperature of the sky and distant horizon.

Local Adjustments

We can use local adjustments in the form of Control Points to introduce more light and emphasis the contrast of the foreground objects and others in the picture. Remember the idea here is to convince the brain that it is looking at a three dimensional scene. It is our job as editors to lead the eye through the photograph and to prevent it from wandering off outside of the frame.

Lavaderos de la Reina
Lavaderos de la Reina

Typically this will consist of brightening or increasing the contrast of objects that you want to lead the eye. Tumbling waters can be made brighter for example. In this picture the snow is the naturaly whitest part of the image so the job was to brighten the waters, initially in the foreground and more subtly in the background, to lead the eye from bottom right to top left of the picture, following the path of the water rather than the chunks of snow.

The Nik Collection

Color Efex

Can be used to apply various effects to emphasise colour and contrast, both globally and as local adjustments


Specifically deals with color and tone. Used as local adjustments this can really emphasise focal points in a photograph.

Nik Sharpener

As an alternative to contrast we can use Nik Sharpener Output to emphasise detail on selected objects in the foreground. This is an excellent way of achieving a three dimensional look to a landscape photograph without overdoing either contrast or exposure. Naturally it comes with its own gotchas as well, overdoing this effect may introduce unwanted artefacts into the image,

Video – Nik Sharpener Output

In this video we look at Nik Sharpener Output which we can use to perform targeted sharpening for screen or print. Please note that if you use PureRAW, then sharpening may already be applied in which case you should avoid Sharpener at all as two passes of sharpening are highly likely to result in unwanted artefacts.

Creating Depth in Landscape Photography – Conclusion

I’ve tried in this post to highlight principles over techniques and to give examples of some o the tools that can be used to follow these principles. This is not a recipe, there are more than one way to achieve these effects but the success or failure of the exercise should be judged (in my opinion at least) by how realistic or credible the photograph is.

To this end, pay particular attention to shadows – in nature they fall in the same direction so don’t overlight areas that are naturally dark. As ever with photography this is a balancing act, these effects can be overdone resulting in stark differences between areas that should be similar or generally sucking the contrast out of the image by lighting the shadows and darkening the highlights. The endpoint is subjective.

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Further Reading

Try these articles about the Nik Collection and DxO Software

Re-evaluating the Nik Collection in 2024

Color Workflow with Nik Collection

DxO PhotoLab 7 Review

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