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As a photographer you need a good understanding of composition to add a sense of depth and place to your photos. One of the best tools for achieving this is using layers in composition. Let’s take a closer look at how it works.
Simplicity vs. layers in composition
Simplicity is a good principle to apply to composition as it helps you develop the discipline to frame photos in ways that leave out extraneous detail. You can often make your compositions stronger and more impactful through simplicity.
The portrait below is a simple example. I used a normal lens with a wide aperture to make the background go out of focus. The effect is to focus attention on the model.
Here’s another example, this time with a landscape photo. It’s a seascape, and I used a neutral density filter to get a shutter speed of 90 seconds to blur the water and clouds. The result is a long exposure photo with simple composition.
But then I decided to try something different. I changed the camera position slightly, moving back to include sand in the foreground and cliffs in the distance.
The result is a more complex composition that users layers. I’ve marked them in this diagram for you to see.
By the way, I’m not saying that complex compositions (with layers) are better than simplified compositions (or the other way around). Rather, they are just different ideas and compositional techniques to explore. It’s up to you to judge which approach works best in a particular situation, given what you have to work with and what you want to achieve.
What are layers in composition?
The easiest way to visualize layers is to imagine that the scene is split into three distinct regions – a foreground, middle ground and background.
Going back to the earlier portrait, you can see that the photo has two layers – the model in the foreground and an out of focus background.
But when we talk about layers in composition what we really mean is photos with three or more layers, like the seascape I showed you earlier.
Here’s another photo that has a much more complex composition using layers.
There are at least three layers in the composition.
- The girl pushing a bike is in the foreground (1).
- The house is in the middle ground (2).
- The mountains are in the background (3).
Another distinguishing feature of photos that use layers is that they have lots of depth of field. One of the layers may be out of focus (we’ll see an example with an out of focus foreground later) but the rest of the photo is sharp enough to provide plenty of recognizable detail. It’s the opposite approach to using a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus.
Why do photographers use layers in composition?
There are several reasons that photographers use layers in composition.
1. To create depth.
Here’s a photo that I made in Jodhpur, India (also known as the blue city). I was attracted by the textured surfaces and the contrast the red bike made with the blue wall.
The photo has beautiful color and texture, but it lacks depth. There is no sense of space.
Compare that with this photo. I was photographing this building when a local woman stepped out of the doorway into the frame. Her presence adds an extra layer to the composition.
The photo now has several layers and a greater sense of depth.
- There’s textured stone in the foreground (1).
- Behind that there’s another layer provided by the colorful walls of the buildings in the street (2).
- The local woman adds a point of interest and a third layer (3).
2. To add a sense of space and place
When you’re photographing a particular location it’s an interesting exercise to try and include details that evoke a sense of the place you’re photographing. This is often easier when you’re traveling as you’re more aware of these characteristics when you’re somewhere new and unfamiliar.
I made this photo in a market in the town of Potosi, Bolivia. The exotic clothes of the local women adds local flavor.
But layers are in action as well. The baskets on the ground (1), the metal blue structure behind the women (2), and the woman partially hidden in the background (3) all add extra layers to the composition.
3. To add evocative detail
Layers are a good way of adding evocative details to your composition. You can see that idea at work in this photo made in a shop in the town of San Antonio de Areco in Argentina. This town is known for its old fashioned style grocery stores, such as this one.
The diagonal line of the counter top takes the eye through the frame. There are interesting and evocative details to take in along the way, from the cat in the foreground to the shelves laden with goods in the background.
Another way to add an evocative detail is to put it in the foreground and make it go out of focus.
This way you’re adding an extra layer that also creates depth and a sense of place, but doesn’t pull attention away from the main subject (the man preparing street food in this photo).
4. To tell story
Using layers in composition helps you tell a story about the situation you’re photographing. For this reason working with layers is a technique used by documentary photographers. If you ever check out the work of well known documentary photographers like Steve McCurry then you’ll see lots of photos that use layers expertly to tell stories.
For example, the story in this photo is one of the miners working hard in tough conditions.
The miners pushing the cart are the center of the story. But the layers add interest, depth and complexity. From the machinery in the foreground (1) to the buildings in the background (2), each detail contributes to the story the photo tells about the miners and their environment.
In this sense, the miners are the main character in the story and the details are the supporting elements.
In reality many layered compositions aim to achieve all the above. The photographer uses layers to add depth, create a sense of space and place, add evocative details and tell a story about what is happening to the main character in the composition.
The point is that these ideas rarely work in isolation. They’re usually linked and a single compositional technique can achieve more than one aim.
5. To add complexity in a structured way
The final reason that photographers use layers in composition is to make more complex compositions, but in a structured way that makes them visually interesting and cohesive rather than messy.
The idea is to find a natural way to guide the eye through the photo, using layers as a pathway.
The key thing to understand is that it doesn’t always work. Making complex compositions that evoke a sense of place, have depth and tell stories isn’t easy. As you put these ideas into practice you’ll make plenty of mistakes. So it’s good to bear a couple of points in mind.
The first is that you don’t have to create complex compositions using layers all the time. Remember the point I made earlier about matching technique to subject. Don’t be afraid to use simplified compositions some or even most of the time. It’s a technique that’s a great aid to creating strong images.
The second is that with time and practice you can train your eye to recognize layers in the scene and use them to create powerful, evocative compositions.
Just like you can’t develop a powerful tennis serve without practice, you can’t get skilled at using layers in composition without purposeful action.
The skillful use of layered, complex compositions is the hallmark of the mature photographer. You need to practice, analyze the results and put the things you’ve learned into action to improve.