Street Photography Composition – Layering

We use elements of composition to make our photographs visually appealing.  Things like leading lines, rule of thirds, and reflections all enhance an image and set it apart from the sea of uninteresting “Street Photography” out there.  I’m not going to discuss what leading lines, the rule of thirds, and reflections are, instead I want to talk about how to create more interesting Street Photography layering.  Layering is the process of capturing an image where various subjects are located at different planes within the same photograph.

If you’ve read my article about the Pyramid Of Composition I use for Landscape Photography then you are probably already familiar with my affinity for complexity in photography.  It’s a natural progression that as you excel at photography you begin to add complexity to your photographs.  We start off trying to incorporate one element of composition (usually the rule of thirds) and then as we get comfortable with that we begin to sprinkle in a few more elements like framing and leading lines.  Layering is something that would fall onto the Street Photography Pyramid Of Composition somewhere close to the top…  It’s a more advanced approach to Street Photography.


Images like the one above, of the man sitting on the bench, are rather uninteresting wouldn’t you say?  The photograph is sharp, the processing is fine, but there is nothing going on.  I see photographs like this ALL THE TIME.  Sure, this is Street Photography…  But it’s not good Street Photography.

Just like photographing a single subject, layering can be difficult to master.  Often you’ll see images that are layered with junk instead of interesting subjects.  The act of photographing a crowd of people could be called layering but it’s a far cry from using layering to strengthen your composition.  You still need a point of interest, a decisive moment, and quality composition for an interesting image.


Here is an image with a little more going on in regards to composition.  I used the rule of thirds and moved in a way that had the man positioned so as to look like the cracks in the road partitioned him off from the rest of the scene.  I don’t know if I’d call them leading lines but they do have a looping effect for me, my eyes follow the line from the bottom left of the image to the man and then along the line to the right of the man, then back around again.  Still, the image is rather bland.  There are only really two layers of composition here and the people in the background are outside of the focus area.


If you don’t plan on using layers of composition in your Street Photography you had better look for more interesting subjects.  For instance, this man with the Hustler magazine didn’t really need any help catching viewers eyes.  When I saw this man I had plenty of time to mess around with composition but I didn’t really worry about it, I knew the subject would support itself.  Had I wanted to incorporate layers I could have narrowed my aperture so that more of the scene would have been in focus and you could have seen the women’s faces when they noticed what the man was doing (I have that image but it wasn’t as interesting as a close up of the man with his tongue half way out of his mouth).


This is a subtle example of layering, you’ve got the family with the red umbrella (the point of interest) walking across the front of the frame while on another plane in the photograph you’ve got people walking in different directions.

DSCF0156A better example of layering is the image above, you’ve got a man looking rather tough looking towards something off of the frame, a woman midway through the frame reading her phone, and a group of people looking towards the camera in the back of the frame.  The man in the front of the frame grabs viewers attention and the additional layers pull viewers through the frame to see what is going on.

Using layers in Street Photography can be difficult, you want to have a subject fairly close to you in order to create the foreground layer and that can be intimidating.  The best advice I can give you, if you’re getting anxiety thinking about that, is to put your camera on manual focus and zone focus.  Using an aperture of around f/6 to f/9 will ensure that most of your frame is in focus so you don’t even have to put the camera up to your face…  Just let it hang around your neck and look down at it as if you’re adjusting a setting when in reality you’re stealing their souls taking their photograph.

DSCF0195Another example of layering, the skateboarders look almost like they are one person and you’re seeing a series of events play out where they start, try a jump, and finish.  Layering does not have to be a huge crowd of people, in fact it doesn’t really have to be people at all.

More complex images does not guarantee more interesting images.  Complexity can kill an idea or subject by making your images busy and unorganized.  It’s important to create images with a deliberate goal.  Everything in your photograph, Street Photography or otherwise, should build towards supporting your main subject(s).

Have you used layers in your photography?  Landscape Photography, portraits, still life, and many other types of photography can all benefit from layering.  Work on increasing the complexity of your photographs in a deliberate manner.  You can share your images with us on our DecsivieShot Flickr page or on Facebook.