Three tips for doing layers in street photography

A sure way to make any street photography image more interesting is to include several subjects or scenes located on different planes inside the frame. This technique, also called doing layers or layering, consists basically in making sure that there is something that grabs the viewer attention in the front, middle and back of the image filling the entire  field.

street photography blog  (C) Juan Jose Reyes

street photography blog (C) Juan Jose Reyes

This technique is much harder that it sounds and it is important to realize that simply layering the image doesn’t automatically make it a great street photograph. I have been concentrating on improving my layering and I found three elements that will increase the chances of making the technique successful and producing an image that “works”.

“What use is having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?”. – W. Eugene Smith

1- The more subjects the better: Technically you need at least three main subjects ( or groups) in different planes to have a layered image but the more the better. I believe that a really good number is five. You can have as many as you want, some of them may be in the  distant background, appearing much smaller than the main subjects, and if they are all located well could add more impact to the image but too many subjects could be confusing and distracting.  There has to be some sort of symmetric distribution between the groups to make it work.

street photography blog  (C) Juan Jose Reyes

street photography blog  (C) Juan Jose Reyes

“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life”. – Joan Miró

2-Place the front subject within six feet or less from you: this is easier to accomplish with a wide-angle which is another reason why a focal length of 35mm or less is best for street photography. The front subject may only be partially visible, maybe an arm or a face, complementing the other subjects or it may be completely visible becoming the center point of the image.

street photography blog  (C) Juan Jose Reyes

street photography blog  (C) Juan Jose Reyes


3- Include interesting subjects or active gestures : Most of the times I find myself placing the subjects in layers but none of them is really having anything interesting happening: no special gesture, no surprise element, no curious posture. This is why I said above that just placing subjects in layers is not enough to make it successful. There has to be at least one subject that carries the picture and around which the other subjects revolve. This is the hardest part of doing layers and takes a little bit of luck and great timing to pull it off successfully. It is the reason why practicing the eye and being quick to react is important. I consider this an area that I have to work a little bit more.

street photography blog  (C) Juan Jose Reyes

Although sometimes just the symmetrical distribution of the subjects is what’s interesting and could “make” the picture, it really helps if at least one of the subjects elicits curiosity or is doing something more than walking or standing.

“Trust that little voice in your head that says.. Wouldn’t it be interesting if….And then do it”. – Duane Michals

street photography blog  (C) Juan Jose Reyes

street photography blog  (C) Juan Jose Reyes

“Art does not follow hard and fast rules, and thus transcends any attempt at a ubiquitous definition.” – Guy Tal

As I said, this is something that I’m concentrating on when I’m out shooting so I expect to write more as I improve my technique. I hope you enjoyed the images.

Thanks for visiting.


All images on this post (C) Juan Jose Reyes. All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Three tips for doing layers in street photography

  1. I love your articles, very informative and concise.
    My natural reaction is to respond to a single occurrence in what ever way I am capable, usually in a single theme way.
    Layering is something I am working on though. I find it very hard to see many elements simultaneously, and make the right call.

    Thanks great article

  2. I’m delighted to have found your blog. I recently started doing street photography and am still overcoming my reticence and nervousness of photographing people and objects in public places. Your hints and photographic examples are an inspiration for me to continue. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Street Photography | Teng R. Formoso (Palawenya Photography)

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