Composing in Layers: What I've Learned so far

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been really working on stepping up my photography especially composing in layers. Honestly, I’m really enjoying it although there are times that I fail. But when I do manage to nail a good shot, I can’t help but feel giddy about it.

So I came up with this where I’ll share with you what I’ve learned so far in photographing layers. Take this as a beginner’spoint of view rather than an expert advice.

Look for your main subject: 

One of the effective ways I do is to look for my subject first. Once I’ve determined my subject, which is the most interesting part of the scene, I then look for the supporting elements both in foreground or background. It could be an object or another person. Personally, these supporting images have to relate to with the main subject as if they are linked to each other and it has to complement the subject. As if everyone is working together. But, for a beginner like me, I try not to pressure myself. Start easy and just gradually progress as you go on.

On my example, and a pretty easy one as you see above. I started with my background, the reflection of the sky on the glass panels. Then started waiting for the right people to go inside my frame. The first photo with 2 people (the guy in blue and the guy coming up from the escalator) and the background are my layers.

Think of blocking:

Have you ever performed for a school play? Or perhaps watched one? I’m sure you have. And you also probably noticed how each actor there are positioned such that no one is blocking each other. That is what blocking is. Now if we apply this to photography, instead of having your subjects (the actors) move to your desired spot, you, the photographer/ viewer should move to the perfect spot to capture the best blocking of your subjects. Compose the image with the consideration of your subjects’ positions and gestures. A bit of a waiting game but It’s fun.

 This was taken in a very popular place in Singapore. Expect many tourists here. Which means a big opoerunity to learn your layering composition.

This was taken in a very popular place in Singapore. Expect many tourists here. Which means a big opoerunity to learn your layering composition.

Triangle composition:

It sound's easy since you only need 3 subjects to form your image. 3 subjects positioned such way that each one forms a triangle when you connect an imaginary line on each one. But no, it ain't easy.

What makes it interesting though, and difficult is finding the right subjects. This may involve you waiting for the right subjects to make it right. Another way to make it more complicated is having more than 1 triangle in one picture. Now that’s pretty challenging.

 Photo © Constantine Manos   Analyzing the layers of this photo, I start with the giant bird with the head turning towards the boy; then the boy looking to the sea wear a wave is rolling back towards the bird. This creates a triangular composition.

Photo ©Constantine Manos

Analyzing the layers of this photo, I start with the giant bird with the head turning towards the boy; then the boy looking to the sea wear a wave is rolling back towards the bird. This creates a triangular composition.

Fill the frame:

 Just as stated, it literally means filling the frame with your subjects.  There are different ways to do it, you can go up close to your subjects so each of them are at the edge of your frame or you can take a few steps back until everyone is up in there taking up all the space you want them to have. This is somehow similar to the blocking concept but I would say it’s a little less formal in a way. As long as you keep in your mind that your subject must fill the spaces then you’re on the right track.

When it comes to filling the frame, there is no other photographer I can think of that can showcase the best example. It’s no other than Alex Webb.

 Photo © Alex Webb   Notice how well he fills the frame with his subjects. Expertly done, not to mention capturing emotions, gestures and vibrant colors.

Photo ©Alex Webb

Notice how well he fills the frame with his subjects. Expertly done, not to mention capturing emotions, gestures and vibrant colors.

Learn to wait:

This is, for sure, one of the main keys we all need to learn when we plan on shooting with layers in mind. You have to be patient and you have to be willing to wait. Not only you have to wait, but when the “moment” is happening, you have to be fast. When all the elements are starting to align, that means you are about to enter that small window to take that photo. Once you missed it, it’s over. You can still try but it’s obviously going to be different from what you wanted to take in the first place. So be quick, watch out for that window and fire.

 Took this on a boat while waiting to dock. I had my camera's viewfinder on my eye waiting for the boy to do something. He looked back at me and I decided to capture it.

Took this on a boat while waiting to dock. I had my camera's viewfinder on my eye waiting for the boy to do something. He looked back at me and I decided to capture it.

Tell a story:

Telling a story using layers in your photo can be done easily. Why? Because usually when you are in a certain area, people are probably doing the same thing. If you are on a beach then the chance is, everybody is in their swimming attire doing what people would do on a beach. The challenge here is to find the right subjects to include in your story. To have them almost in sync with each other making your image easy to read and understand. The viewers should be able to connect the subjects and make a conclusion, in the end.

 I took this photograph on a time where the Pokemon craze are taking over Singapore. 

I took this photograph on a time where the Pokemon craze are taking over Singapore. 

Complexity may do you favor:

 I guess the saying “ There is beauty in chaos” goes along with this. The more complex and chaotic it gets the better it looks (not always though)

Take this image I took for example. I was able to include almost all the points I have mentioned in this article. I had my main subjects: Guy with his back facing us, the girl with the bag ( she’s actually part of the photo walk group me and my friends participated with), the two girls on the far left, and a reflection of me taking the photo. I was able to have all the subjects stand on their respective positons. And I was also able to fill the frame with me, the girls in the far left and the small details like the light and the stairs.

The image is pretty chaotic with all the fuzz going on but somehow there is beauty in it. Something in this image that makes you go and look at every details of it and wonder what the hell is going on. Sure my reflection was a dead giveaway, but there is more there is in this photo that you want to find out.

 I took about a little less than five minutes before I was able to get the shot I wanted. I saw the opportunity of using the reflections to create this surreal (kinda) photograph. Creating layers from the reflections and the person inside the room.

I took about a little less than five minutes before I was able to get the shot I wanted. I saw the opportunity of using the reflections to create this surreal (kinda) photograph. Creating layers from the reflections and the person inside the room.

That's it! All I've learned so far. Loooong way to go, for sure but I'm optimistic. I got to start somewhere and somewhere is now. If you've got some tips about composing in layers, let me know! I'd love to learn.

As always, let's go out and shoot!