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Photography composition: layers

Let’s talk about layers in photography composition. Not to be confused with layers in Photoshop. You can leave the computer alone for this photography tutorial.

These composition tips are all about capturing the three dimensional world in layers to make your two dimensional photographs come alive.

Using layers in composition impacts every type of photography.

I’ll demonstrate with three different types of shoots to show you what I mean:

  • family shoot
  • styled portrait shoot with a dancer
  • street photography

There are 2 reasons to compose photos with layers

  • Layers add dimension and depth
  • Layers help to tell a story

Let’s take a closer look…

1.  Layers in composition for added dimension

In photography we’re trying to convert a world that exists in 3D onto a flat piece of paper or screen. To create the 3D effect in 2D, it helps to include layers in your composition.

If your subject is between layers, you instantly give the feeling of the photo being three dimensional. It also allows the viewer to feel like they’re part of the moment created with the image.

Take this image below of a ballet dancer in front of street art. The art is great, the dancer is great, but it lacks something. The moment I added a layer, by climbing into a flower bed (carefully so as not to damage any plants!) and shooting through the flowers, the image came alive (see photo above).

Add layers when composing a photograph to add depth

Scroll up to compare with the first photo. 

What if you’re photographing in a documentary style? This is the second reason layers are great for composition.

2.  Layers in composition for story telling

The trick to creating a compelling photojournalistic image is to create a story at a glance. In order to create a story you need to be aware of, and take into consideration, all the elements in the scene and combine them into a compelling composition.

There is always more than one element of composition involved when creating an image. Knowing good composition and keeping these thoughts ticking through your head the whole time will instantly improve your photography.

As with everything in photography, there are also several ways of creating layers in composition.

4 ways to create layers in composition

  • Objects
  • Movement
  • Scenes within scenes
  • People

Let’s take a closer look…

1. Objects as layers in composition

When photographing people outdoors in a documentary style, look for vegetation to include in front of your subjects. This helps to place them in the scene and tell a bit more about the location, rather than simply recording smiling faces looking at the camera.

For this family photoshoot we went strawberry picking. By getting low and photographing the child between two rows of strawberry plants, I created depth in the image.

Because I was ready with my camera when she momentarily looked over to her mom, I was able to get this shot before she went back to picking strawberries. The shot tells the story of what was happening, capturing the memory of their family outing.

layers in photography composition

2. Movement as a layer in composition

Incorporating movement in your image adds a layer and tells a story.

Whether you freeze the movement or allow it to blur, the viewer is drawn into the image. The movement tells the viewer what’s happening and what will follow.

At a wonderfully loud and music filled street festival I positioned myself to photograph a group of drummers. I allowed their hands to blur to show the beat and add a layer of interest to the composition.

layers with movement to add depth

3. Scenes as layers within scenes

I then shifted position and pulled back a bit to include some of the scene. To relay the party atmosphere I wanted to show the different scenes within the photo:

  • the drummers
  • people sitting at a table in the middle of the street drinking wine
  • colourful festival goers walking by

This was a very busy scene, but I knew the feeling that I wanted to create and the idea of the image. So when I positioned myself it was just a matter of waiting for the right passersby to complete the scene.

layered scenes within scenes

Here’s a “spot the composition techniques” image. I’ve used: layers, differential focus, rule of thirds, leading lines, triangles and diagonals

4. People as layers in composition

Composing layers with people is just as effective as using inanimate objects. You just have to have the right combination of people for your story.

Anyone who attended this wedding would know instantly that this was the moment the bride’s missing puppy was found and brought to her. Layering the tearful bride and the big smiles of her guests around the puppy, the central subject, tells the story at a glance.

differential focus using layers and framing as a composition technique

Back to the festival for a last moment, because I had so much fun photographing it! Also, because this next photo does the same thing, but for a different reason.

I wanted to show the wonderful blend of different people at the festival. So, I positioned myself in the middle of one of the main streets of activity. Then I stood and waited for the right moment while the party streamed past me.

When the ideal shot was about to come into frame, I dropped to my knees and began shooting. I focused on a couple enjoying the atmosphere and being in the moment, but kept the shot wide to frame them with contrasting people in the crowd. The two very busy looking, non-dressed up individuals on either side were the perfect contrast to complete the story.

The layering sums up the variety of people and the inclusive ethos of self expression promoted by the festival organizers.

Using people to layer composition and frame subjects for depth

Another “spot the composition techniques” image. Here you see: layers, differential focus, framing, leading lines and symmetry

Much of street photography is luck, and you can’t possibly compose with the same care as with a planned shoot, but this is the fun of it. Also, it’s incredible how much a bit of planning helps to draw in the luck.

So, the next time you’re out there with your camera, think like an onion…in layers! (Couldn’t resist making a bad joke, but maybe it will help you to remember this technique.)

Leave a commet

As always, it would be great to hear about your experience composing with layers. Have you incorporated layers into your photography before and if not, have I convinced you to give it a go?

If this photography tutorial has helped you to understand how to use layers in composition, share that too – we love good news!

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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Use layers in composition for immediately awesome photos
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