Layers are a fundamental part of photography. In essence, they are a means of defining and providing depth: each layer, the one behind the other, is further away: the third dimension in a flat medium.

This, though, is not the end of layers. If anything, it is barely the beginning. Layers have many forms, and many uses.

The basics

In their most basic form, photographic layers are but a representation of layers from the real world; a rendition of the layers within the scene of which the picture was taken. The most easily recognised form of layers used in this way is the classic receding mountainscape: the different layers of a mountain range, rendered in receding-toned silhouette, the one behind the next.

Touched, by aftab.

A classic example of mountainscape layering, the depth of each element’s silhouette implies very clearly the increasing distance. Slightly unusual in that the foremost element is on a different plane, the tonal range across the whole is maintained perfectly.

As the mountain view, where distance and atmospheric interference emphasise the sense of distance, creating distinct layers, so can mist be used to create a mood of mystery, with tones and definition fading in steps as one goes deeper into the image. Of course, this use of layers requires a suitable subject in order to stand out.

Misty Morn.., by missnoma

Misty Morn..
The mysterious mood added to this scene by the leafed trees receding into the fog is a perfect complement to the gnarled mid-ground subject, especially under a sky that does its own textural transition to add weight, moving the eye into the murky middle band. Back lighting on the foreground shrubbery gives us further interim barriers to cross simply to get into this haunting scene.

These simple uses of existing layers are the easy ones, at least conceptually (which does not mean they are easy to achieve). However, it is by no means the limit of what can be achieved with layers, nor even the scope of what counts as layers within the realm of photographic composition.

Other types of real-world layers

Depth of field

While it is not a form of layering we see every day with the naked eye – our eyes generally adjust too quickly as our focus changes – depth of field is a key layering tool. It allows separation of subjects: emphasis through partial obscuration.

serenity, by jenny downing

This image would not have anywhere near the same impact if the second woman were in focus, or not present. The use of depth-of-field layering allows her to add context while not dominating.

I had hoped to add a further example here of depth of field used within macros photography, but did not receive a sample that displayed the effect to my satisfaction. The detail of greatest import for depth-of-filed layers, which applies most critically to the realm of the small scale, is the distinction between that which is in and out of focus. The simple fact that there is a slice of the image that is sharp and much that is not does not make for layers. The transition between in and out-of focus needs to be sharp between the layers, else there is continuation and the whole concept of layers is lost.


Another very common type of layering is repetition. While not mandatory, real-world depth is very useful in making repetition into layer; the pattern needs to represent and imply increasing distance.

Winter in the park, by Art Rock (Hennie)

Winter in the park
That this layering is created from the extrusion of a repetitive pattern provides us with a lot of different layers: we can see them in the leading lines of plantation, stacked one beside the other; whether we are looking in from the side or at them aligned one behind the other. In this particular case, as each element making up the layers is individual and distinct, we can also find depth within the individual micro-layers.


There is one form of layering that is used widely within other visual arts – cinematography and distractive amusement for certain – that many would not think of immediately as layers, yet is most definitely. Indeed, it is a form of repetition. That is reflection, especially recursive reflection (multiple mirrors creating alternating repetitive reflections)

Kaleidoscopic, by cormend

While reflective layers are usually achieved through the pairing of two flat surfaces, the added playfulness of curvature gives the repetition here a sense of life: the difference in luminosity within each rendition of the core image creates the added layering effect resulting from having the same element repeated.

Unordered layers

So far, all our layers have had order to them. It was always possible to step deeper into the images, counting off distance. But occasionally, layers may be presented in a way where this ceases to be entirely obvious.

lightning seeds, by mav_at

lightning seeds
While it is possible – with a fair amount of concentration, to sort out what the actual positional order of the elements is here, it is by no means obvious. The staggered positioning implies that the delicate right-side pattern is behind the out-of focus rings, which is clearly behind the sharp bulb: abstract focal layers emanating from a bright central source.

Created layers

Not all layers are quite so obvious as those shown above. Sometimes, they do not exist within the real world, at last not in the clear way that they are represented within a resultant photograph. The simple variance of tones can create an illusion of layers, whether that is distinction between elements in their entirety, or repetitive variation within each “layer.”

Water On A Wing – An Abstract, by Col Cartwright

Water On A Wing - An Abstract
The transition between feathers in a wing is, from a physical layering perspective, negligible. Each tapers and lies softly on the next. But with the tonal changes either in the feathers’ colouring or lighting, the steps between layers can become far more prominent.

Layers within the subject

Mentioned as an aside previously, there is one form of layering that does not apply to the depth of a photograph. Instead, it is seen in the surface of the image: visualisation of the repetitive nature of many layers as a side-on slice. This can create some very effective and dramatic lines and textures.

lost, by Peterhdr

The texture in this image is a clear result of geological strata – layers – cut across and viewed side-on. This really makes the picture.

While these layers within a subject may provide textures by being viewed side-on, they can also be very affective when they are the core structure of the subject itself.

Textured by light, by Col Cartwright

Textured by light
Perhaps the greatest beauty of a rose from a photographic perspective is the way the petals provide concentrically layered rings, focusing the eye to the heart of the flower through perpendicular leading lines while also providing a fascinating variety of textures.

Uses for layers

While the creation of layers is generally a simple fact of location and distance, the uses to which layers can be effectively put only begins with their direct representation. Below are a various implementation of layers that perform compositional actions.

Separation of subject

One of the simplest applications of layers as a tool is to separate the subject of an image from its surrounds. This may be achieved through various techniques, including: depth of field, luminosity and colour.

Unfortunately, the picture selected for here has been deleted by the owner..


While separation of subject is usually achieved through the subject being in the foreground, sometimes this is simply not enough. If there are other elements – parts of the subject that you do not want to detract attention – layering to achieve masking will de-emphasise the secondary portions of the image, allowing the viewer to be drawn more firmly to the parts that really matter

Thinly Veiled, by Andy_57

Thinly Veiled
A beautiful face will always draw attention. So, to put the viewer’s focus on the eyes where the photographer wanted it, the interest of lips is veiled: not removed but subtly dropped back. We can still dig into those other areas, but when we relax, we are drawn to the part of the image that wants to be seen.


Very similar to masking, revelation involves the primary subject not being the foremost element. Revelation is more intrusive than masking, allowing only a small portion of a subject to be displayed: emphasis through subtlety.

The Unveiling (Cropped), by cormend

The Unveiling (Cropped)
Despite the obviousness of tone and prominence, it is not the foreground which stands out to the viewer of this image at first glance. it is the enormity of the mountain that peeks through the clouds. We need only that glimpse of it to realise how it dominates.

Creating direction/motion

The layers seen so far have had one further retail in common: they have been stacked with the same orientation. But if the layers were to enter the picture from different angles, obscuring the deeper elements in parts, this would create a sense of viewer direction through the image.

Nobody there., by ben.pearson.007

Nobody there.
The layers in this image approach from different sides, but are sufficiently spaced (in depth) as create an S-curve for the viewer to follow into the gentle distance.


Lastly, we come to the sense of abstraction and misdirection. While the use of side-viewed layers as texture has been mentioned, differing textures within a single surface can create their own sense of layers; just think of how water on a lake can have distinct behavioural patterns. Apply these is a non-conventional way, and you can achieve compositional beauty that the viewer has trouble making sense of.

Light and Dark, by sannesu

Light and Dark
There are no layers of resulting from distance here; the scene is continuous. But the different textures of churn, ripple and shore divide the image into layers – distinct surfaces. The way it is then presented, confusing the eye with the churn which is obviously closest and shore at the bottom wraps the whole around into non-continuous surfaces: misdirected abstraction.


Now that the subject of layers has been unveiled in recursive depth, it is time to fill out the sample picture count with more examples, from those submitted, that stood out.

RepetitiveDays, by Auribins

Layer-based framing here is a perfect tool to imply mood through repetition: the subject being the setting rather than the caged animal, the monotony of life in this concrete jungle is clearly portrayed. There is a clear sense that even if we were to move forward through the first portal, there would be just another division appearing, ever keeping us at arm’s length.

Peek a boo, by aftab.

Peek a boo
Masking or revelation? It depends on your perspective. I could not omit this submission – it was just too cute, and a clear use of layers.

Magnetawan River near Cedar Croft, by Pavel M

Magnetawan River near Cedar Croft
While most layer examples so far have emphasised the distinctions in distance, this waterfall does the opposite. the black and white rendering of a slow shutter hides the depth, but in a way that emphasises the abstraction of the image. Each step in the process is a layer, irrespective of the distance between the viewer and it.

sydney harbour bridge morning fog, by D80bert

sydney harbour bridge morning fog
While most layering benefits from distinction in distance, occasionally more subtle layering – as here – can be used the other way around to show the scale of another subject. The immensity of the subject is made clear through its clarity at the top of the image and disappearance into mist; scale provided by the boat in the middle distance.

A special twist

For the most part, the layers deal with so far – whether real or implied – have worked within a simple orthogonal frame of reference. The layers have generally been stacked one behind the other, or they have been arrangements of elements beside each other – layers viewed from the edge. So, the obligatory twist to the concept.

Like Spinning Squares (square crop, B&W), by Jeff Presnail

Like Spinning Squares (square crop, B&W)
Layers need not be flat. They need not all be aligned along much the same plane. While many may see this image as being a flat plane with textures, it is more than that: the rotation of the individual tiles provides a wonderful jumble of localised layers; each a distinct surface that interacts with the rest to create pattern and chaos.

  1. A difficult exercise, intuitively completed. Immense thanks for your effort and kudos for your teaching skills.

  1. April 3rd, 2011

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