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Planes

Two dimensionality in your photographic compositions.


The surface of a floating dock at sunset demonstrates where planes are found in photography.
The surface of a floating dock at sunset demonstrates where planes are found in photography.

What is a plane?

A plane is a flat, two-dimensional surface. Think of a blank wall or the surface of an ice rink. In mathematics, basic tasks in geometry, trigonometry and graphing are carried out using planes, or two-dimensional space.

The photograph at left clearly shows that the dock is three-dimensional, since its sides are visible. However, the surface of the dock, and even the planks it is made of, illustrate where planes may appear in photographs. Indeed, the dock's sides themselves are planes.

Your photographs undoubtedly contain examples of several planes, sometimes obvious with clear boundaries and sometimes suggested. They may also contain shapes or solid objects that may appear as planes for a number of reasons. For instance, a full moon will often appear to be a flat, round plane in a photograph (especially when overexposed) whereas it is in reality a solid sphere. When the moon is photographed so that its surface features can be seen, it will take on more of the look of a solid object.

The picture on the left contains another plane - the calm surface of the lake itself. But you might not have thought of it as a plane right away since it contains reflections that suggest a three-dimensionality that is really not there.


Planes may be parallel like one sheet of paper stacked above another or may intersect as when two flat walls meet or when one plane bisects another.

Parallel planes could be found in a photograph of a building designed for parking vehicles, where one flat deck (a plane) appears above another. When several parallel planes are stacked so they are compressed on one another, they will begin to take shape in the form of a three-dimensional solid. To understand what is meant by this, visualize a thick pad of sheets of paper. The pad appears to be a solid block that is composed of many planes that together make it seem to be solid.

Intersecting planes appear throughout our photographs in many forms. A box, for example, has sides (planes) that meet. A table placed up against a wall has its surface (a plane) intersecting with another surface, the wall (also a plane).

How do we use planes in photography?

Photographers use planes in many ways. It's hard to avoid them. Planes are everywhere.

Consciously, we use them as backdrops for portraits, for example. A table or counter top is employed by a food photographer as a surface on which to photograph his or her appetizing subjects. The flat floor of a desert is a plane on which plant and animal life can be photographed. Architectural photographers confront planes in their daily endeavors (walls, floors and other building elements), and learn to use them to advantage in their images. When you take a picture of an airplane coming in to land, you want to show the runway as a flat plane on which the aircraft will safely touch down.

Parallel planes are shown in the top diagram. Two intersecting planes are shown in the lower diagram.
Parallel planes are shown in the top diagram. Two intersecting planes are shown in the lower diagram.

Planes that extend beyond the frame can serve several purposes - as an expansive backdrop for objects on them; to suggest that there is more of it outside of the image, and as a simple resting place for your subject.
Planes that extend beyond the frame can serve several purposes - as an expansive backdrop for objects on them; to suggest that there is more of it outside of the image, and as a simple resting place for your subject.

What are the "rules" for using planes in photography?

There are no specific guidelines for photographers when dealing with planes in composing their images. The subject is more one of awareness - that you recognize that planes are among the many graphic design elements available to you. As such, they can be employed and positioned in your composition to help deliver your picture's message.

How photographers treat planes when composing an image can be instrumental in creating a composition that gets its message across with clarity. Here are some examples:

  • At its simplest, a plane can serve as a resting place for an object, as illustrated by the wooden shelf on which the leopard kitten (left) is resting. When used like this to provide a solid base for an object, very little of the element that is a plane needs to be shown.
  • Planes that lead out of the frame can stop the eye at the picture's boundaries, or stimulate the imagination by suggesting that there is more beyond the image that the eye cannot see.
  • Planes that fill the frame can isolate objects on them, as shown by the billiards table image on the left.
  • Planes can be employed like lines, to direct the viewer's vision, leading the eye towards the picture's center of interest.
  • They can frame a subject. At an extreme, they can enclose and isolate it.
  • They can create the illusion of depth, especially when the light striking them changes gradually over the plane, or when their borders converge as they approach the horizon, or when they overlap.
  • They can block unsightly elements in a scene.

The list could go on and on. Flat surfaces - planes - are everywhere, and the ways photographers can utilize them to achieve an effect in a composition is equally as endless.

In the pictures directly below,

  • intersecting planes lead the viewer's eye to the bird perched on the roof;
  • they provide graphic design interest and create the impression of three-dimensionality for a tall building;
  • the diving board points to the girl jumping into the pool; and
  • a light diffuser serves as the two-dimensional surface for a silhouette of a young woman.

  • In the image below, the obvious plane is the surface of the road, empty except of course for the car and driver. The road also contains just what you would expect to find on it, a broken line that divides the road into two traffic lanes.

    This image is noteworthy because the plane and the broken line on it tend to draw the viewer's eye towards the distant horizon, away from the picture's center of interest, which is the vehicle and the young man next to it and they are nowhere near the horizon.

    You may think that this would tend to confuse the image's viewers as to the photographer's purpose in taking this picture. Did the photographer want you to look at the subjects or want you to be drawn further into the image?

    The answer is both, and the image is not at all confusing.

    Why both? Because the roadway (the plane) serves two purposes - one, as a normal place to pose someone with his car, and two, as the path that the car would normally be driven on.

    The picture therefore infers motion, in a sense, where there is none. The viewer can both admire the car and want to be in it travelling down that road.

    Planes, lines and other elements of composition can be integrated to make a statement with even an image as commonplace and straightforward as this one. If you think intelligently when you are composing all of your pictures, even those of your child's birthday party or a family gathering, you will be amazed at how well your photographs not only tell the story but are also attractive compositions - good pictures - that tell the viewer that you are a competent photographer.

    Planes can point to the center of interest. They can be used for a silhouette. They are found in architecture and many other natural and man-made things.
    Planes can point to the center of interest. They can be used for a silhouette. They are found in architecture and many other natural and man-made things.

    Two compositional elements have been effectively combined in this picture - a plane (the road surface) and a line (down the middle of the road).
    Two compositional elements have been effectively combined in this picture - a plane (the road surface) and a line (down the middle of the road).

    Include planes among the elements in your compositions.

    Unless you have to take a shot quickly, it is almost always beneficial to take the time to consider all of the elements of a scene and how they can be employed to influence the look of your picture.

    Many of us tend to concentrate on the center of interest and can benefit from also thinking about surrounding objects, including planes, and whether they can add to the composition if, for example, we change our shooting angle to better place them in the scene. You may also be able to illuminate or darken them, relocate them to a better placement or use them as a backdrop or a blocker.

    When you come upon a scene you wish to photograph that contains an obvious plane, take a moment to think about how to use it to improve your composition.

    Related topics...

    Frames

    Lines

    Center of Interest

    Shape and form