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There are two obvious definitions to layering: the literal splitting of the frame into planes of different distances, and the metaphorical addition of implied meaning through careful choice of subjects and subject placement. Ideally, an image should employ both to reward the viewer on further contemplation and to provide a visual that isn’t overly literal or one-dimensional. Unquestionably, a degree of ambiguity is required too, especially when working with implied meaning. But how can we consistently make images that fire on all cylinders?

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The literal

Firstly: perspective deals with the spatial relationship between foreground, midground and background elements. For a given subject magnification (size in final image), wide perspectives emphasize foreground over background; telephoto perspectives tend to make everything about the same. Having spent quite a bit of time attempting to maximise layering with a wide range of perspectives, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s easiest to accomplish with the midrange: anything wider than about 28mm becomes difficult because the foreground dominates; anything longer than 85 is tricky because you have to have very distant elements or risk large amounts of blur completely obliterating all context. Of course, there are situations in which extreme perspectives are useful – for instance, if all of your compositional elements are relatively close to the camera, then a very wide lens works just fine; on the other hand, if we’re talking kilometres between successive mountain ranges or other geologic features, then you’re going to need something longer.

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Literal layering is no different to good perspective use: be aware of what distances render as foreground/ midground/ background for your given perspective, and then make sure that there’s something of importance – and prominently so – in each of them. If one of the elements is missing, you’ll likely find the resulting image becomes very flat: subject in front of background or vice versa. There is no sense of spatial separation or three dimensionality; even worse if the ambient quality of light is overcast or does not contain strong shadows. In effect, what we’re trying to do here is use depth of field and scale cues to trick the viewer’s subconscious into following our intended order of subject priority.

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Here’s where some deliberate ambiguity comes into play: your subject does not always have to be in the foreground, or in focus, or the largest object in the frame; it merely has to be the most visually prominent. The Idea of Man series deliberately exploits this. On top of that, use of out of focus foregrounds in the cinematic fashion can create the illusion of being an observer as well as create a smooth (i.e. non-distracting) transition between scene and ‘not scene’; important and unimportant. The beauty of ambiguity is that the less you give, the more the audience has to supply for themselves – and in doing so, fulfil their owns expectations. Reactions to abstract photos, for instance, are more a mirror of the audience than the photographer: you see what you want to see. People have negative or confused responses because they aren’t really aware of their own biases and thought processes – it’s far too easy to be told what to think by media and other social influences.

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There is one caveat to all of this: go out of your way to avoid any possible distractions, because they may well unintentionally introduce another layer of confusion or ambiguity that could contradict your intended narrative. Unintended pictorial elements that do not fit the expectation of the audience then draw attention to themselves: this could be a deliberate non-sequiteur to change the direction of thought or provide intellectual reward for noticing, or it could just be a cut off foot or intrusive tree branch. Practice conscious exclusion at all times, and take care to avoid distracting overlaps of out of focus areas – in both foreground and background.

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The metaphorical

Just as it is impossible to write a story without having some idea of the plot beforehand, it’s equally impossible to create a visual one without knowing what you want to say first. I either go in knowing what I’m looking for and therefore the elements my image needs to have – the ‘photojournalism approach’ – or alternatively, I turn my awareness level up to eleven and look for interesting anchor subjects. Once an anchor is found, I’ll then look in its immediate surroundings to see if any of those elements could be used to add some implicit layers of meaning, or create contradictory signals and must therefore be marked for exclusion.

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Simple stories have few additional elements beyond the primary subject; everything else is merely context. There’s also not a lot of opportunity to add meaning beyond the literal: what you see is what you get. This is an additional challenge of extreme perspectives: with wides, your foregrounds are so large and dominant that the background does not play much or a role, or everything is unimportant and small. With teles, it’s either difficult to separate elements of different intended narrative prominence because they’re all the same size, or the background fades into undifferentiated blur. Remember: every time you add another element, it will have an impact on the narrative. Does this strengthen the story to the direction you want, or add confusion?

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There’s also a spatial aspect to consider: not just differentiation of distance in a single ground plane, but also implications from relative positioning and size within the frame. We perceive larger objects as more important; smaller ones as less important. Elements above the main subject are detached; elements below are supporting or unimportant, whilst others are affected by the sight lines of human subjects: concentrated upon, ignored, or historical. And the relative space between elements compared to the external size of the frame matters, too: more space between edges and subjects implies closeness; subjects close to the edge implies there’s some sort of escape going on or repulsion from whatever might be in the middle.

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It gets more complicated still: there are non-spatial considerations that impact mood, such as quality of light, amount of light/ brightness of the scene and dominant colours. All of these things trigger certain memories and expectations within the audience and can be used (or distracting, if not paid attention to). Warm light and a clearly cold/hostile subject can invoke a sense of danger, whereas the same quality of light and homely subjects would be inviting. Putting both together could be confusing, or implicit of hidden danger or something sinister, depending on the spatial arrangement of the elements. Further complexity of interpretation is added depending on the experiences and biases of the individual audience member. I think it’s now clearer to see how many possible interpretations might be engineered into a photograph – and we haven’t even discussed how titling can completely change interpretation by drawing attention to parts of the image that might not necessarily be visually prominent.

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However, most of the time the audience does not consciously pick up on these things: they’re the compositional equivalent of body language cues. We notice them but are not necessarily aware of them; however, as the artist, we need to be working one level deeper than the audience if we are to get our idea across convincingly. We need to be aware of how human visual psychology works. A good litmus test is to ask yourself: is there more than one possible story here? Is that story detailed and well-told? Are the other fundamental four things taken care of? If so, then chances are, you’re on to a winner that will stand the test of time because multiple viewings result in additional visual reward. If not – ask yourself, what’s missing? MT


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  1. Excellent article Ming, love the simple way you explained a complex thing, bravo!
    robert, silent reader…

  2. Hi Ming,

    I’ve been silent for a while but never stopped reading.
    It’s articles like this one that make me go ‘Yes! Yet another one that ‘ll make my brain work and my body tremble in anticipation of the next shot!’ What’s more, I keep coming back to them to check on the comments. Some of those are like the brandy and cigar after a marvelous dinner …

    Please keep it up. Thanks.

    • Thanks Roel. Always worried I might have lost the audience if there’s a suddenly deafening silence… 🙂

      • You don’t lose us. You just make us think and work harder … and get out there to experience some more photography.
        And that’s why we always come back.
        Don’t worry, you’ve got us hooked.

        • 🙂

        • John Brady says:

          Seconded Roel… I rarely comment on these threads right away. Instead, I like to reflect on them. I often find I don’t have much to add to the thoughtful comments from some of the more regular commenters.

          Ming, it’s a shame you don’t get the same level of traffic for these articles, but FWIW your gear articles impact my wallet… your philosophical articles impact my photography 🙂

  3. Your photography is the absolute best! Wonderful images!

  4. it is disheartening deep and true. Thank you for sharing such knowledge

  5. Oh well, I’ll mention a simple truth, still valid these days: if you wanted to have more traffic on this (or any) post, all you had to to is include some sexual connotation; like “Layers and strip tease ” or some such.

  6. junaidrahim says:

    From the workshops I’ve always felt you get the layering part very well Ming. Maybe also because you have had a lot of time with cinematic? Layering for me adds so much strength to a photo

    It’s taken me a while to fully appreciate this – and I have to admit I found it quite difficult to get the basics of. I kinda get what you mean about metaphorical – but the story teliing in theory should always be there and you are simply combining layering more intrinsically with this (as well as spatial considerations)?

    • Possibly – I’ve always felt layering to be one of those things that has a strong control over the visual density and perceived complexity of a scene; whilst not directly affecting the storyline if ambiguous/ out of focus, it can create the impression of there being something more…

  7. Ming

    I know that the four things and this essay are explaining types of photographic skills and that these skills are needed to create good photographs. And these skills can for the most part be learned and for most are a necessary step along the way. A workshop can make the process happen more effectively than years of devoted study and practice.

    But the ephemeral great image remains just that. Bresson’s children playing in the ruins, Strand’s wall street, Bergman’s rapture, Adams moonrise, and a host of others can have the four things identified, but the vision that makes these a jaw dropping experience, is akin to explaining Pollock.

    And there lies the rub: The vision thing is something that can’t be taught.

    • That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. We might not be able to hit 100% delivery, but preparedness beats random chance any day.

    • David Lupton says:

      Claude you have raised another interesting point which is the change in interpretation over time by the artist of the negative/file particularly Ansel Adams Moonrise over Hernandez, when he took it he knew he had a great image waiting to be caught on camera which he did, the first printings were softer grey less dramatic than the later images which are stronger more intense in tone etc its worth comparing the two. His previsualisation changed over time for possibly, his printing style changed as his aesthetic refined itself, this sitting over and above what he did in that moment to capture that awesome image. That other layer we forget is time, our time here and how we see is constantly evolving and that added something special to Moonrise that didn’t exist in the original. The recognition of the great shot was there in the instant of seeing, the wrestling of it into its final form sometimes needed something else.

      Can vision be taught, somedays I think yes and lately no, we can give people the tools of seeing, the trick is how to empower their personality which is their unique thing they bring to making imagery art etc so that the fundamentals rise above themselves in any given thing to greatness?

  8. While I do enjoy most of your equipment reviews, it is articles such as this one that got me hooked (about three years ago). I have never responded to an article on any blog before but your comment regarding ‘supreme unpopularity’ convinced me to reply.
    Aside from your professionalism and eloquence I have a feeling that this blog is written by a person who is true to himself and to his worldview, and this honesty makes it so compelling and accepted by your readers. I believe there are many more like me.

    • Thanks Noory. I got concerned because the stats were telling me – and still are – barely 20% of the usual audience for this post…

      As for saying what I think and sticking to my guns – yes, though at times I suspect I’d be better advised to take the popular route… 🙂

  9. Felix Leyer says:

    Excellent article with lots of “meat on the bone” to chew on for the next coming years (at least in my case). I think it needs careful stripping down by the reader to analyze what it means for him, his photography and his style. However, this means WORK.

  10. Diego Rojas says:

    I am one of the silent readers. This is a very interesting article, maybe my favorite so far. I really like the idea of you sharing your thoughts about different aspects of photography, specially not the technical ones but the conceptual ones. Wonderful images as always. Regards, Diego

  11. Carlos Polk says:

    Also, not to repeat in other weaker words – well, maybe. This is a very thoughtful article and not one that provokes an immediate, emotional response. One of the better ones in my opinion.

    • Thanks, but possibly also the least popular one I’ve written in a long time, if the stats are anything to go by. I wish I knew why! Hmm, I wonder if all the social media connections are working now…

  12. Phenomenal imagery Ming, and a very enriching and read worthy article. I find your image examples clearly reflects what layering is mostly about. Great read and great visual stimulation, thanks 🙂

    • Thanks, but appears to have been a supremely unpopular post for some odd reason. No gear, I guess 🙂

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      (..instead of repeating in other and weaker words.)

      The kind of article that gives a lot of food for thought for mind and eyes,
      and when you have digested it enough to (maybe) comment actively and concisely … the next blog is under discussion!

    • Thirded! Great post, and important enough that it would have to go in the hypothetical ‘Best Of’ book. Layering seems like such a simple concept, but for me at least it took a long time to click – I remember asking you why my images seemed a bit planar when I submitted my portfolio to the Email School…

  13. gordon says:

    are you back in queenstown again? i am going back again in a few weeks love the place Ming.


  1. […] but by and large, the OOFF is almost always present even in wider angles of view simply to add more visual layers to the composition. The more layers, the more depth, and the more depth, the richer the story. One […]

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