When we all started out taking pictures, we were pretty much just taking "snapshots." Point the camera at something or someone of interest and press the shutter button, was all there was to it. Done! How good we were with a camera was measured by how accurately we positioned the subject of importance - usually dead-smack in the middle of the frame.
Then the so-called “Rule of Thirds,” became our revelation, as we imagined our viewfinder divided horizontally and vertically into thirds. All we had to do after that was to place our subject at one of the four intersections of lines and we were "good-to-go!" “Masterdom” arrived when we began to twist and snap the rules in all sorts of directions. Creativity was finally ours.
If we’re honest with ourselves, much of the work being produced back then was not a whole lot more than “candy” for the eyes - cool, clean images built of a single layer of interest that brought a first look and then nothing after that. The picture below is just such an image. Granted it was shot in good afternoon light, but beyond good light and color, there’s no meaning or message to bring the viewer back for a second and third look. This is not to say that reaching a level where single subjects and uncluttered backgrounds isn’t an achievement. “Simplicity” is the hallmark strength of good composition. But there can be a whole lot more.
If you’re a thinking photographer, you'll soon realize that what’s needed is a clean break from eye candy and a graduation to photographs that carry your message on a deeper level - in a different way. Stating it again, a photograph should grab the viewer’s attention - and most importantly, not let it go. And to do this, an image needs to possess both "content" (i.e. interesting visual information) and a way for the eye to navigate through it. This is where “layering” comes into play.
Depth of field is exactly where to begin with this and a wide-angle lens in the 20mm - 35mm range is the tool to make it happen. Key to the magic is a strong foreground, middleground and background. The goal is to invite the viewer into the frame - seeing close-up what the photographer sees and then leading them into the middleground of the composition and then onto the background elements of the picture.
Take, for example, this photo made by award-winning Bangladeshi photographer and TCI instructor, G.M.B. Akash, on the streets of Hamburg, Germany. The “Subject” of this composition is the homeless woman sitting with her dog on the sidewalk, in the middle ground of the picture. The chaos around her is what initially grabs the attention - the blur of passing bicycles and the strong graphic of running athletes in advertisement, towering behind her. Juxtaposing this sedentary subject between active layers builds tension and gives this “multi-dimensional” photo its interest. It may often appear as “chaos,” but a skillfully layered picture does have order to it. Look closely you’ll see that there’s no (or minimal) overlapping of key elements, throughout the frame. In a well-layered picture there may even be small interactions that are missed at first glance and call the eye to another, closer look.
Light is a most important element of any photographic composition. It can take a mediocre scene and bring it to life, but it can't make something out of nothing. There must be "substance" - that interesting "content" mentioned above. With this in place, nuances of light move the viewer's eye from one compositional elment to the next - back through the photo. Layer-upon-layer, separated by slight differences in light quality, makes photographs that much more interesting and worthy of more than just a single glance.
Create visually “complex” photographs instead of just those "busy” images lacking compelling content and your work moves to a whole other level of expression and viewer engagement. With layers of elements and light, positioned front-to-back, your compositions grab attention and invite viewers to stay longer and explore for more. Bring this dynamic to the photographs you make and your audience will call for an encore, too!
To learn more about such exciting and inspirational techniques, why not enroll right now on an online photography class at The Compelling Image online school of photography. And take your important step to becoming the photographer you've always wanted to be!