Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Composition: Layering

This is one my favorite subject to discuss about photography: layering. It incorporates a variety of subject matter into levels and results in more dynamic and complex photos. It incorporate the dynamic of foreground and background elements, rather than a shot of a single subject, alone. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this and we'll briefly discuss them.

The idea is to balance the image, using inanimate and animate (people, animals) things to frame your subject (as mentioned above, in the foreground and background). Here's an example:

In this shot, notice that I was careful to achieve separation between each layer. If I were to overlap my wife or father-in-law with my mother-in-law (who's in the background), I would lose the layering and end up with an unbalanced picture. Remember that as photographers, we can't imply layers or depth, we have to show it. If you're not getting enough separation, change your angle until it's achieved. Separation is very important to achieve true depth in a photograph.

This is very simple layering. Rather than a two-dimensional shot of my youngest crawling outside, I framed him in front of my oldest son. Layering, even when simple, creates a more 3-dimensional look and balances out a composition.

I love complex compositions like this. Each individual is doing something different, looking in a different direction. One of my favorite compositional tools is placing a face or body in the foreground (off to one side) and using that as a natural frame, leading the viewer into the shot and offering some context. (by the way, these are my cousins-we'll touch on expanding FPJ from immediate family in future posts)

In this shot, my oldest (Henry) was eating icicles. Nothing groundbreaking. However, my wife began to photograph him. I chose to take a lower angle, using them to frame one another and tell part of the story of that afternoon through simple layering.

It helps when there are multiple areas of action at once. Layering (or creating levels in an image) is not always enough to take a shot to a more interesting level. Sometimes, the action has to be there. In this shot, you'll see both my son and my wife playing. There's a type of parallel motion between them as well (you'll notice they're both reaching forward with their arms, both leaning to camera right).

I included this shot as an example of using this compositional technique with telephoto lenses. Rather than capture a headshot of my youngest, I chose to frame him with his grandfather behind him, incidentally providing context to where they are and who is present.

This is one of my favorite shots because of the way everyone is spaced. You just have to be ready to capture it when it happens IF you're waiting for it to happen naturally (which as a family PJ, we usually are). I used my youngest (as he looks on) to frame the action in front of him. I also used the doorway to frame them, making this photo more complex than if I had stepped into the bathroom and grabbed a tighter shot of what was happening.

Layering takes time and practice. It takes forethought but the results are well worth it. It's a skill I admire in the most gifted of photographers. By using it, it will take your compositions to a higher level, create a visual dynamic, take images from two to three dimensional, and add complexity to what might be otherwise flat images. Not to say that simple isn't good (I love that, too). As always, thanks for stopping by, guys and girls.



  1. i just found ur blog and i love it! looking forward to explore more and learn from you!

  2. Great article as always. I would love to see a section on your method and belief on black and white conversion. I have always struggled with what I would consider a great, true, film like conversion, and it seems like you have it down to a science. Keep up the great work.....

  3. After commenting, I notice you have already covered this. Thanks!!!

  4. i just found your blog, being recommended by my friend, you are awesome and i will read all your posts. Will get to learn a lot form you.

  5. very concise and clear writing on compositionational layering with good examples

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  8. Yeah, layering, that wonderful compositional and visual storytelling device. And a truly gifted photographer who writes so lucidly about it. Reading it and adopting some of the pointers from it will take your photography higher than years of reading and fretting about gear.