Layering Depth & Story


I first came to understand the concept of layering in photography through World Photographer of Year, Jack Picone. Jack had really liked my documentary work up to that time, but suggested something was lacking, especially with my travel photography – dimensionality. Put another way, if Jack wanted to be more critical, was that my work lacked a certain maturity. Jack’s “dimensionality, now more commonly called layering, is what separates the good photographer from the potentially great. This statement will surprise a lot of you. I hope by the end of this article it will make perfect sense.

In simple terms layering is what adds the illusion of 3 dimensions to flat, two-dimensional photographs. To add this illusion to our images is sometimes the easiest thing in the world, because it happens by accident! The scene is naturally layered. We might be fully focused on the main subject, trying to get the eyes sharp in a street portrait for example, and be unaware of what else is happening in the frame. But things lined up for us by happenstance, and wow, what a great shot I took! I knew it the whole time…

Now, it’s not just about the layers. It’s about what the layers add to the image, both in terms of visual interest and in helping to convey the story of subject(s) and scene within the frame. It’s possible to have lots of layers and still have a boring photograph. Trust me on that!

Sulfur workers showing layering in photography
Sulfur Workers @ Mt. Ijen volcano, Indonesia

So we start with the three basic layers – foreground, middle ground (most often the subject) and the background. When you have all three with enough distance in between you have the illusion of three dimensionality. Depending on what they are, what shape they are, how much of the frame they fill and where, if they are sharp or soft or blurred, and how the light is hitting them, determines how effective the layering is in adding to the image’s story.

It’s not easy. The ability to see the full frame and all its elements – most especially in street scenes or at events – while still being sure to capture the main subject at the right moment, what we call here the “luminous instant”, is one of the most difficult skills to acquire for photographers. It takes a lot of practice with intention and awareness. It takes being out there in the field as much as possible and peeling back your awareness like a lion on the savannah. It’s not just about the prey, it’s about the distance to the prey, everything around the prey, and how it might all change and come into play once the stalking has begun.

Begin simply. Simply I say! Go through your own images and look for examples of layering. Ask yourself if you were aware of it at the time, or just got lucky. Lucky or not, you have already shown yourself you can do it. Now all you have to do is do it on purpose on a consistent basis. Even a little will go a very long way in taking your photography to the next level.

You don’t have to wait for a big photo trip to practice. In fact you don’t have to go any further than your own home, yard or neighborhood to practice. Don’t worry about having an exciting subject – any subject will do. Rather, concern yourself with telling the story of that subject with layering.

Let’s have a little fun to give an example:

Subject: Your loving, smoking hot spouse
Scene: Sitting behind a desk in a den with a bookcase behind
Foreground: The back of a chair in front of the desk (layer one). A desk lamp (layer two)
Middle ground: Your loving, smoking hot spouse (layer three)
Background: A bookshelf filled with books (layer four)

You decide to take a picture of your spouse’s commonly used environment – the den. An environmental portrait. You can choose to take this photo head on and get 4 layers, as indicated above. But you notice how the the light from the window is angling in. You see his/her favorite book – War and Peace – is the last on the shelf facing the light, and unobstructed. So you take a step or two to the side and take a knee so that both the spine of the book and its cover are now lit perfectly. The angle of the light itself hasn’t changed of course, but your angle to the light has effectively made it so.

So you have the book lit as you would like it, but now your spouse’s face no longer is. So you ask her/him to change the angle of their heaven sent visage until you have both a lit side and a shadow side to add a little dramatic contrast. Now you still have your four layers, albeit from a slightly different angle, and you have them lit in way that works both aesthetically and terms of telling the story of your spouse.

But there’s more to my loving, smoking hot spouse, you’re thinking – the irreverent side. Through the viewfinder at wide angle you take notice that your change of position has also added another layer. Beyond the end of the serious book case stands a cardboard cutout of Austin Powers. Eureka! Light and shadow meet Austin Powers & Leo Tolstoy – that’s my baby!

Background 2: Austin Powers (layer 5 – pure genius!)

TIP: Move. Change your position and you change the world

There are million ways to use layering to make better photographs and tell better stories. Of course it’s much easier in a controlled environment. Out in the field where things tend to be in motion the degree of difficulty is greatly increased. Even landscapes move, albeit normally slowly. And if you have an animal or human element that movement and/or position is quite important.

The more you practice being aware of all the potential elements that can come together to make your image sing, the more singing images you will make. Be patient, be steadfast. There will be a million swings and misses, a million luminous instants barely missed, a million potentialities that never quite come together.

That’s photography. And one of the best things about photography, is that nobody sees all those swings and misses. They see your solid singles, your extra base hits, your home runs and your grand slams. But it’s all those strikeouts – as long as you are aware and learning from them – that make those big hits possible.

And now for the moment you’ve been waiting for, a dozen + examples of layering from Luminous Journeys photographers, and some select commentary from yours truly! Please try to control yourself.

Camel Toes

No, this article is not a series of David Lazar camel images from Rajasthan, although it could be! Can you count the layers? Can you see that if David didn’t adopt this exact camera position in the sand, that he would not have captured a very good shot? Of course you can. I count 8 main layers, although you could count more.

1. Camel toes (front)
2. Camel driver
3. Camel toes (rear)
4. Camel 2
5. Camel 3
6. Camp being made
7. Raised desert background 1
8. Raised desert background 2

And the story the image tells? You tell me.

Layering in photography, Hpa An, Myanmar.
Hpa An, Myanmar

Since you are probably wondering about layering in landscapes, we’ll try a couple of examples. The image above was taken at sunrise in Hpa An, Myanmar, using a tree as framing device. There were several other photographers present, all taking standard sunrise positions before looking around. I looked around, saw the hole in the tree, climbed up the base a bit, to see if it would work as a frame. It did. It added the first layer as well, to the already beautifully layered scene.

1. Tree – split trunk
2. Branches and leaves
3. Lake
4. Reflection of the roof on the bridge
5. The middle ground subject – reflections under bridge, bridge, people on the bridge
6. Background tree line
7. Far background karst limestone mountains

Colombia photo tour image of mountain cross and horses
Colombia Mtn. Crossing

The image above was taken in the remote mountains of Colombia by new Luminous Journeys photographer, Tristan Quevilly. Notice the careful way Tristan framed this image for maximum mood and meaning, with an extra layer of foreground layering that most people would have not “gotten in the weeds” for. I won’t count the layers and the number of layers isn’t the main point.

Layering in photography is often subtle, and not something the average viewer notices consciously. They just feel themselves drawn into the frame. Even though the cross was always going to be the highest object in the frame from this place on the hill, Tristan made it even higher by getting low. Getting low served two purposes here, one of adding a darker foreground layer, and one of emphasizing the strong religious nature of the country with the nature of the country! Yes mom, I see the horses.

Colombia photo tour lady in Cartagena f a cross and horses
Cartagena, Colombia

Here’s a classic Colombian image from the streets of Cartagena from Mr. Quevilly. Most people would have rushed to get a clear shot, while Tristan moved behind the reclined statue to add both interest and depth. That’s the Colombian flag in the center of her dress, tipping the location for anyone who knows flags. This is an example of good travel shot made great by just a little bit of available layering.

Salt workers example of layering in photography on a Vietnam photo tour workshop
Salt Workers @ Dawn, Hon Khoi, Vietnam
June is best month for photo tour in Vietnam with rice farmers
Rice Farming in late June, northern Vietnam
Round fishing boats near Hoi an, Vietnam
This shot by LJ participant Dave McKay made the Top 10 Travel Photos of the Year, in the 2019 Wanderlust competition. Congratulations, Dave!
Thailand Akha picking tea taken on Southeast Asia photo tour
Akha picking tea in remote mountains of northern Thailand.
Elephants and mahouts on Southeast Asia photo workshop
Elephants and Mahouts on the Mekong in Laos
Machine shop men in Phnom Penh on Cambodia photo tour
Machine Shop Men, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Fruit seller street shot on India photo tour
Varanasi, India
Example of layering in photography
A Nun’s Prayers, Takeo, Cambodia
Monk at Ta Prohm, Cambodia photo tour
Ta Prohm, Cambodia

We hope you enjoyed the suggestions and the images, and are inspired to go out there and start layering in photography! Of course one great way to learn, is participate in a great travel photography workshop.

Bennett Stevens Written by:

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