Using Layers – Ordering Chaos

There is almost no image in my portfolio that doesn’t use layering and a careful consideration of the relationships between image elements in order to tell a deeper story. I’ve written about this approach in my book Life Happens in Color: A Street Photography Manifesto, and recently I wrote a blog post which describes the Compose and Wait method I use to achieve these results. The challenge in making complex layered images, is ensuring that all the pieces of information are working together, organizing the chaos of elements vying for the viewers attention.

At the October 1st meeting of the Thousand Oaks Photo Group, I will be speaking on Using Layers to Organize Chaos as an introduction to their November Digital Composition Challenge. If you want to explore this topic in landscape photography, I urge you to study the images of Clyde Butcher, who has used his large-format B&W photography to bring awareness to the restoration and preservation needs of the Florida Everglades.

This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Related image
Simiane-La-Rotonde, 1969

This quote and image by Henri Cartier-Bresson illustrates the importance of looking at the relationships of lines and servers in our photographic pursuit.

When thinking about telling deeper stories, I begin by examining how stories are told in literature. Writers use their words to build layers of description and expression for their readers. Some writers can compose single sentences that describe detailed scenes and complex activities.

He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquíades’ magical irons.

– from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The beauty of this sentence from the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is how its describes far more than a simple static scene. Not only does it details an action taking place over time, but also reaches into the past when it suggests that “even objects that had been lost for a long time” were attracted to these “magical irons”.

I have pushed myself to take images that are as elegant and descriptive as this type of writing seeking to build images that refer to actions, describe the present, refer to the past, and lure the viewer to thinking about the future. In order to do this, images need detail, and the detail needs to be organized.

Quattro Canti

I opened this post with a image taken at the Quattro Canti in Palermo. This corner is of an architectural importance, on the corner of each of the 4 districts of historic Palermo stands a nearly identical building but with each representing a different king, patron and season. Acting like a sundial, the face of each building is lit at different times of day. In this image, I use a fairly long lens (90mm effective focal length) to flatten the layers of people passing nearby in shadow against the grand face of the sun-lit building diagonally across the intersection from where I am positioned. Although the perspective has been flattened by the long-lens,the layers are provided by the scale difference between the silhouette of the bike-rider and the two men sitting below the statue. I probably took over one hundred images at this corner while waiting to get just the the right light, the right scene to play out in the distance, and the right passerby and timing.

Comparing Compositional Approaches – The Story of Manouchehr, now called “Mike”


Fairfax Avenue was a thriving Jewish neighborhood of Eastern Europeans and Persians when Manouchehr Monsef purchased Sydney Shoes some 40 years ago. He now spends most days alone surrounded only by his fading shoe boxes with no customer in sight. When I walked into his store, Manouchehr was more than happy to tell me his stories about the neighborhood, and about his sons and grand-daughters. He also told me that he has many names – Manouchehr his Persian name; Moe, the name he used the first time he came to America; but now on his business card he is simply Mike. But the name he treasures the most is “Baba-boo”, his grand- daughter’s pronunciation of “baba bozorg”, the Farsi endearment for Grandfather.

The images I took of Manouchehr, “Mike”, represent a variety of compositional approaches – a establishing shot, a portrait, some details, the story of his grand-daughter, and some layered shots. The image above is the most layered and taken from a unique perspective that provides not only the needed details about the person and the scene, but also an off-balance perspective that is consistent with the story.

The establishing shot is a straight-forward composition that ensures that all the elements are cleanly delineated and carefully included within the frame – the shoes, Manouchehr with his zig-zag posture, and the shelves filled with faded shoe boxes. The portrait gives us a sample of his personality, describing how things have changed. The environmental portrait puts Manouchehr in his environment with the cluttered desk. They story he shared with me culminated in talking about his pride of raising his family and now 2nd-generation American granddaughter. The first whole scene image is an attempt to tell the story in one image, but second uses a unique perspective and layers to recreate the almost surreal atmosphere of this little shop caught in time.

Establishing shot
Portrait capturing personality
Environmental portrait
My Grand Daughter
Details for the story
Whole scene image to capture the mood
Whole scene image with unique perspective and layers

More Examples

Finally, I leave you with several examples of the use of layers to tell a deeper story with clear order and composition. Note in each of these images the clear delineation and relationships between elements and how the background elements provide additional context and story.

Misfit Kiss



Window Shopping



Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi


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