For this blog, I have set up a Readers’ Requests Page for anyone to comment requests for posts, topics, changes or additions they’d like to see here on Shooter Files. I’m also starting a Reader’s Requests Post Series from these suggestions. If I write a post from your suggestion, I’ll credit you and include any link of your choice in the post as a thank you.
So, the first Reader’s Requests Series post comes thanks to Manthan Patel.
Manthan Patel’s Request: “I would love to see an article on layering techniques used in street photography.”
Manthan Patel’s Link: instagram.com/photosbymanthan
7 Tips on Layering in Street Photography
Layering scenes with multiple subjects across different depths of field across the frame is a popular theme in photography. Alex Webb is one well-known photographer when it comes to this style. Having multiple points of focus can create more interest and draw the viewer in, while forcing them to scan over the whole photo to see everything. Sometimes it can create a more complex story in the viewers mind or give them a more complete feeling of the scene, moment and mood. Layering in itself doesn’t make a good photo, but it can add to a photo to make it better.
There’s much more to it than just putting elements across the frame, though. You still want strength at its core, be that a primary subject, visual feeling or moment. There are no rules in photography, or in layering, but here are some tips that should help improve your photos if you’re trying to focus on layering.
1. Number of Subjects & “Grounds”
A composition is generally divided into three planes. The foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground appears closest to the viewer, the background appears furthest, while the middle ground is located between them. As the photographer, you’ll be able to see these distances when making the photo, but the viewer of the photo will feel these planes due to scale, depth and how you make the photo. While you can have more layers than this, these 3 primary “grounds” are the minimum you’ll want to include to really get a feeling of layers. They also help divide and organize any additional layers in your scene.
In order for a photo to clearly show all 3 “grounds,” they all need to include an element or subject that brings focus and separation to that plane. This is true for additional layers within each plane too. For many, the more subjects, the better, as long as there’s separation. I don’t believe this is always true, specifically when additional elements don’t really add anything. But generally speaking, layered shots do work well when they can contain many subjects in a well composed frame. It’s one thing that makes layered photos so interesting to look at.
Another way to bring out separation between your “grounds” and layers is to use a wide-angle lens. The longer a lens, the more compressed the elements and layers will show in the photo. A wide-angle lens (<35mm), does the opposite, really making the viewer feel and see the different layers.
2. Look Through Entire Frame
One of the biggest difficulties with layered shots is all the information you have to think about when framing the scene. While true with any photo, it becomes even more important to look through the entire frame when making the photo. You don’t just have a subject and background. You have multiple subjects, “grounds” and a good chance they’re not all static. So look across all of your layers and see how you can put it all together in a timed shot that organizes the chaos into a filled, yet clean frame.
You want to avoid overlaps and mess. You want the layers and subjects to stand out on their own. And you want the scene to come together into layered beauty.
3. Get Close
When working with a multi-layered shot dealing with many subjects and elements, you might feel the need to stay far back to fit it all in. This can remove the intimacy and feeling of being in the layered scene, though. In return, removing most of the effect layers can have on the viewer. Shoot far away and most scenes will have layers in them, you just won’t feel them, as the layers blend together. The closer you get, while containing the layers in the frame, the stronger and more pronounced the layers will look and feel. The scaled size of the layered elements and wide angle’s effect bring focus to the different layers’ distance, bringing the viewer into the scene.
4. Foreground is Important
By getting close, the foreground becomes very important in a layered shot. In my opinion, it’s what makes or breaks the shot as much as anything. Without a strong foreground element, the layered shot usually feels missing. Even if the other layers are strong.
So you first want to make sure you have a strong foreground subject and then make sure you really put it into the foreground. When using a wide lens, it can feel like you were close enough to it, but then when you look at the photo later, it doesn’t really feel like it’s in the foreground. So make sure to get close and put it where it feels like it’s up in front of the viewer.
5. Still Needs Interest
Just because you have tons of layers and subjects all organized nicely into a frame doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a great photo. Like with any photo, you still need to capture interest. Without it, the layers will just feel like a formula.
Examples of things to look for to include interest in your layers:
- Look for a primary subject, which the other elements can help support. Maybe you see an interesting character, but instead of just focusing the frame on them, you can include other elements to add to the scene and main subject.
- Look for gesture, which can really bring a layered shot to life. Gesture not only creates interest, but brings focus to the different layers.
- Look for something happening, an action or moment. Maybe something is going on in the foreground, middle ground and background that can come together yet stay separate.
- Gesture, action or moments across different layers can come together to tell a complex story from the scene (at least created in the viewer’s mind).
- Look for light, shadow or color. Layers of these elements can paint a beautiful picture when brought together.
Layers are a way to organize interest into a photo, but remember, you still need interest to begin with. Capture interest, not a formula.
6. Wait for another layer to complete the frame
When going for layered scenes, a bunch of layers perfectly organized probably won’t just appear without some thought and patience. Many times you’ll spot a nice scene with some layers, but it won’t feel complete yet. This is when you see what else might complete it.
Maybe just moving or changing the angle can add to another layer. Or Maybe you have the foreground and midground you want, but need something in the background. Look outside the frame and see what might enter. Patience and instincts are very important when it comes to layers.
7. Where to focus?
If you have a layered shot where you need to get up really close to the foreground subject, you might question where to focus the frame. Since you’re putting visual importance on all the layers, do you really want the background to be out of focus just so the foreground is clear. Or do you focus on the middle so it and the background are clear, while the foreground keeps some blur?
This one is really up to you. Some feel the foreground is most important when it comes to focus, while others will sacrifice a little foreground blur to make the rest of the scene clear. I zone focus, but might bring it in a little if I feel the need to get extra close, but I try not to overdo it. The importance you feel for each subject can also help you decide how you want to focus.
Another thank you to Manthan Patel for his request on layering. Hopefully, some of these tips can help you improve your layering or expand your possibilities when it comes to street photography. Again, there are no rules or magic formula to photography, but there are ways to help capture what you want to see, or see things you never saw before. Layering is just another way to do it.