The secrets of taking good pictures: Layers

Photo expert Tom Langford gives his advice on visual layering.

New York (photo credit: Kimberly Hay)
New York
(photo credit: Kimberly Hay)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
The job of a photographer is to take pictures that command your attention. Whatever the subject, the aim is to create memorable images that you cannot ignore. It should be impossible to walk past one of our shots in an exhibition or skip over our picture in a magazine. We don’t always succeed, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
To engage your attention and keep you interested we have a whole bagful of tricks and techniques. This week, we will focus on layers; one of the most important and powerful techniques. It’s very simple to understand and when you get the hang of it, it will dramatically improve your photography.
A shot of New York at night
Let’s have a look at this picture by Kimberly Hay, taken in New York last year during Chanukah. She took it on her camera phone and it shows the dormitory building of Stern College for Women with the Empire State building in the background.
Kimberly HayKimberly Hay
This is an excellent shot showing a vibrant, noisy, bustling city at night. The vertical format and tilt of the camera exaggerates the perspective and draws our eyes up to the top of the shot, then the dazzling city lights draw our eyes back down to street level. There is a lot of movement in this image and it certainly captures New York's nighttime vibe.
To me, it also looks a little sinister and unsafe: It’s a bit eerie that the street seems to be empty and yet there is so much movement implied in the picture.
It’s very important to remember that photographs have to speak for themselves and tell their own story. I’m not sure if this is the tone I would like to set for a women’s college dormitory in NY, but I would give this top marks as an effective composition of a city-at-night shot.
Adding a layer
Let’s see if we can give the picture more depth and meaning by using the simple device of adding a layer.
Most good photographs have several distinct layers. All shots, of course, have a background layer, but the most interesting pictures will also have middle and foreground layers. Our eyes roam between the layers and this gives a sense of depth, movement, and meaning. Virtually all good shots have a strong focal point that can be situated in any layer. Kimberly’s shot is essentially a superior background layer with the burnt-out highlights suggesting a middle layer, but it lacks a foreground layer and a focal point. Adding a foreground layer will not only add depth and interest but can also act as a focal point too - so how do we go about this?
Almost anything can be used as a foreground focal point – a simple street sign, a yellow cab, a group of people passing by, etc. Each gives its own flavor to the shot. To keep to the women’s dormitory theme Kimberly could place a couple of obliging students walking into or out of the frame.  An NYPD theme suggests itself to me, as I have indicated below.
Kimberly HayKimberly Hay
Next time you take an interesting shot, remember that for it to work in the wide world, it will need to tell it’s own story. Check to see if you have at least two layers and that there is at least one strong focal point to suggest a story. If you think and shoot in layers your photography will have advanced enormously. Imagine your picture in an exhibition: Can people walking past it? Have you captured their attention? Layers make all the difference.
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Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details of his courses and field trips at: