How To Use Layering In Photography For Exceptional Photos

what is layering in photography
“Exceptional photos are created not taken.”

Layering in photography is an often overlooked photo composition technique. You may even be using layering in your images now and not even realize it.

It’s a vital composition technique to be aware of. Being aware of layering in photography will help you create exceptional images. Get it wrong, and well, your photograph will not be as good as it can be.

Layering is a composition skill that can be used by any type of photographer. For example, street photography, landscape photography, portrait photographer, wedding photographers, still life photography, and more can benefit from layering.

Today, I’ll share how to use layers to improve your photography and add variety to your compositions. Plus, lots of photography tips and examples for inspiration.

If you’re ready to master layers in photography, let’s do it!

Table of Contents

What Is Layering in Photography? Plus, Why Should You Use It.

Layers in photography are similar to their namesakes in editing software, like Photoshop and GIMP.

In essence, you stack or layer multiple elements throughout your scenes to guide your viewers throughout.

Scenes have three main parts; foreground, middle, and background. You can use each part (section) to creatively layer your composition.

Photography itself is about recording a scene and sharing your art with others.

If you nail the lighting and composition, your images will stand out from the 1.463 trillion photographs created every year.

Layering increases the chances your images will be exceptional.

This photo by Simon, shows how layers work naturally in nature.

2 Basic Core Foundations For Using Layers In Your Composition

Here are the two main ways that layering can help you achieve your creative vision.


Add Depth In Your Composition With Layers

You can take a two-dimensional scene and create depth by taking the foreground, middle ground, and background into account.

Depth-of-field (DOF), shutter speed, camera position, and light can be used in your layers to enhance the overall composition.

Each allows you to grab your viewer's eye and direct them to what you want them to see. Get this right, and you will be, in fact doing number two...


Use Layers To Tell Stories

Whether you know it or not, all your photographs have a story. How much your image is telling is based on your composition, the use of DOF (or aperture selection), camera settings, and light.

Even photography beginners are telling stories. Although your photos may not have perfect lighting or even composition, for that matter, you recorded or created an image.

What's inside that photo? Strangers, family, friends, landmarks, cityscape, animals, something else? Each of these tells a story about the moment you captured.

For example, The sky can tell you what time of day and possibly the season. Landmarks tell you where. The people in your photos tell you whom, what, and can even tell you where.

Layering can help you take all those elements and present them in a way to tell a complete story. Or tell the story better!

5 Ways To Create Layers In Your Composition

Here are 5 ideas for using layering in your next photograph. Lots of photo examples to get the creative juices flowing!

Note: Although the following examples are from my wedding photography, these tips can be used in any photography genre, including; street photography, portrait photography, fashion, and more.


Using Layers With People

For this image, a person is in each section of the scene…

three people three layers

Notice how the M.O.B. creates a frame around her daughter’s face. What composition technique is this known as?


Combine Layers With Light

Layering with light is a skill that can help you create extraordinary images. By strategically placing your subjects in conjunction with the ambient light, you can add depth. 

Or you could use specific camera settings to expose for a setting sun, and this will cast your subjects into a silhouette.

For the first image, I placed the couple in a forest of Cypress trees. As the setting sun filtered through the leaves and branches, the light danced around them, adding depth.

The position of the couple also helps tell the story of that moment. Which I like to refer to as romantic photojournalism.

a layer of light

The silhouette shot was created on the beach of Sanibel Island, FL. Which happened to be close to the Cypress trees!

The tonal range in the foreground, middle ground, and background layers create depth to the image.

I’ve utilized the Leading Lines composition rule, too; the horizon and the beach/water edge. This leads the viewer throughout the scene to the couple.


Capture Movement

The use of a slow shutter speed captures the movement of your main subject (s). This adds to the story. Freezing the action tells a different story!

Here, I captured the best man during a Zeibekiko dance. His movement was slow but fast, his arms flowed with grace, and I was in awe of this traditional dance.

slow shutter to capture the movement

Using a slow shutter, I was able to capture the essence of that moment (for both the pictures above and below).

slow motion processional

Ever get that feeling when things seem to happen in slow motion? I think this image portrays that perfectly. The bride’s expression also plays a role in the story. Wouldn’t you agree?

Do you see how each of the foreground, middle ground, and background layers are filled?

Layering, in this image, helps add to the storyline; father/daughter, guests, the church.


Create a Mood Or Feeling With Layering

The use of layering was applied in this image to create a certain mood; tension. The tension is created by the layering of bushes in front and behind them.

sometimes layers create tension

Imagine they are in the foreground vs. the middle ground. How would this change the composition? Would it make it worse or better?

Let me know in the comments.

Although tension is usually associated with negative emotions, I think in this case, it’s a positive emotion… based on the relief of (finally) making the “walk.”

The layering I applied in this photograph gives you a sense of the who, what, where, and time with each layer.

For example, father and daughter, wedding, (possible places) garden or park, and outside, afternoon.

I also incorporated two other composition rules; Leading Lines + the Rule of Thirds.


Shoot Through Objects

Pick a structure or other object to shoot through…

shooting through a structure

Shooting through something also utilizes my favorite composition style, framing. In this case, the structure itself is the foreground layer, the back of a chair, and creates a frame for each subject. Which helps draw the viewer’s eye towards the people.

Due to the shallow depth-of-field (shot at an aperture of f/2.8) & proximity of the lens, the chair is out of focus. This, too, helps our eyes gravitate to the middle ground.

The people in the middle tell you who and what. The clock in the background gives you the time of day!

Although the time isn’t crystal clear, a viewer might find themselves trying to figure it out. Peaking one’s interest makes for a compelling image!

shooting through glass

Shooting through glass gives our viewers insight into the surroundings inside a structure. But the question is, are there three different layers?

Is the foreground the glass or is it the reflection in the glass? Is there a background layer? If not, do you even need a background?

Personally, I think there are only two layers in this image; the reflection and the couple. I could have used a polarizing filter to reduce or eliminate the reflection.

However, I feel the reflection gives a viewer more information about the location; i.e., it adds to the story.

Another option would have been taking the shot from the inside. This perspective would have changed the story completely! Oh, and the layering too.

I Double Dog Dare You To a Photography Challenge!

Reading about a composition technique is one thing. Putting it into practice is another. It’s time to take action and apply your new knowledge!

First, I’d recommend going back through some older photographs and search for layers in them. Study the layers and ask yourself how you could have stacked the elements another way.

For your next photo shoot, make sure you plan ahead. Visualize how you can layer your scene. What DOF will you use? What about the camera settings? Can you use ambient light creatively to enhance the layer?

With practice, you’ll soon be able to see layers all around you!

Like this article? If so, please share!

Picture of Parker
A 30-year photography pro with a desire to help you achieve your creative vision! Facebook | Youtube

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