Using Layers – a short tutorial

Red Car Cat


a series of short tutorials on different compositional techniques you can use to make images with stronger impact

One of the challenges of photography is to portray the complexity of a 3-dimentional world onto a 2-dimentional image. Using layers – foreground, middle ground, and background – helps the viewer perceive your image in 3-dimensions and generate movement through the image.

In my cat image above, the he story begins with the chain-link fence. We are looking into something that is protected, we are standing on the outside. The next layer is the car and the cat. Is the car being protected? Where is the cat going? And finally the back layer of clothes and wall stop us from moving out of the image and bring us back to the front layer.

Images with a good use of layers often work like this. The eye moves from front to back and something in the back layer stops the viewer from going out of the frame and brings them back around to the front again.

Here are some tips to building images with layers:

  • —Organize the scene with objects in the foreground, middle ground, and background
  • —Stand close to your foreground object
  • —Use an interesting sky as the background
  • —Typically you will put everything in focus

Layers are often used in landscape compositions. A common compositional recipe for landscape photography is to use a wide-angle lens,  find an interesting foreground object, and use full depth of field to lead the eye from the foreground into the landscape middle ground and finally end with a dramatic sky. Dan Holmes, a local Ventura County photography – uses this style masterfully. Here is one of mine.


Here is another use of layers from a ghost trailer park in Keeler California. Here I used perspective to convey the depth of the scene from near to far. As I moved around to find this frame, I was looking to position all the components of the image in their own layer without overlap. The trailer in the front has its own clear space and creates some weight to the image on the right. The pink trailer in the middle-ground creates balance with a position off to the left. The distance mountains clear the roof of the trailer and finally the delicate wisps of clouds keep your eye within the frame and force a circling back to the front trailer.

Camp Keeler

Sam Abell taught me to use in my street photography by first looking for the backdrop setting and then waiting for the moment to materialize. In this scene near the warf in Santa Barbara California, I first isolated the sky and pier and set my composition. With the children playing in front of me, I waited for the right moment with good the motion and interaction. The little curl of wave adds an bonus layer of interest. Notice the importance that the wave is on its own layer and not intersecting the children.

Beach Play

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