Working With Layers in Street Photography, Part Two

One of the keys to success in layering is to have meaningful correspondence between the different layers: between subjects in the foreground, middle-ground and background.

It’s not enough simply to fill up the image with layered content. There needs to be something more, such as capturing each element in an aesthetically pleasing position within the frame. You may need some luck to get it exactly right because you can’t control the subject. You can adjust only your viewpoint or the settings on your camera.

Three Steps

  1. The best way to capture a moment in time and preserve the various layers of interest is to use a wide-angle prime lens, such as 35mm or wider. You can still obtain a layers shot with 40mm or 50mm, but it becomes harder because you’ll lose focus in some of the planes.
  2. The next step is to start fishing in the right pool. Go somewhere that has an interesting background and plenty of action between you and it.
  3. Thirdly, you need to move in to get close to the action. While doing this, think about colour and form — the abstract elements that go into making the picture — as well as literal content, such as: what’s that guy doing? Will the kid jump? What are the words on that carrier bag?

If you’re lucky, you may achieve a composition in depth, especially if you get a clear view of distant action.

Easy? No, it’s like playing three-dimensional chess. But if you’re aware of any potential for these “layers of interest” then you are at least open to the possibility of achieving a good image.

I used these three steps in taking the featured shot (above), so let’s talk more about them:

One: Seriously, Which Lens?
It’s vital to keep foreground and background in reasonably sharp focus, a task that becomes harder with focal lengths longer than 35mm. However, if your lens has too wide an angle it will distort vertical lines at the edges: scarcely ideal if you’re shooting anywhere near buildings or street lamps.

Cameras with fixed 28mm lenses (Ricoh GR/GRII/GRIII; Leica Q/Q2) are clearly a great option, as are mirrorless cameras with lenses that give you 24mm or 28mm on full frame, or their close equivalent (such as 16mm or 18mm with the APS-C sensor format). I used 40mm on a full frame camera for the featured shot.

Two: Fishing In The Right Pool
The best kind of location for layers shots is one where there’s some open space in either the foreground or middle distance. With this feature you’re more likely to find “planes of interest” rather than a continuum of background objects. (Needless to say, you don’t have to feature anyone actually fishing, although I’ve done that, too, in the shot above!)

Three: How Close?
You need to be within a few feet of the closest object, otherwise you’ll not get the all-important foreground layer to offset — or perhaps even frame — the more distant elements. As a rule of thumb, six feet is about as close as you can go without blurring the foreground when your focus is on something just beyond it.

I hasten to add that with an ultra-wide angle lens, a narrow aperture (and hence a longer exposure) you can get closer than six feet, although this combination rarely works for handheld street photography in average light.

Experience gives you the confidence to find the best point on which to focus for each particular lens and setting. Always remember: stopping down the lens will greatly increase the depth of field. Never attempt to take a shot with layers in mind if you have a fast lens with its aperture fully open. You’ll simply get one layer in focus. It may still be a nice shot but it’s not what we’re discussing here.

Focus How?
Camera reviewers are keen on cameras that have a touchscreen enabling you to select a focus point simply by tapping it on the screen. These days they tend to bemoan any camera that lacks this facility.

However, in street photography you don’t often have time to fiddle with focus points. If you have a split second to spare you should pick up focus from the appropriate distance (10 metres in the example above) and then quickly recompose the image by framing the subject as you wish. Alternatively, if even a split second is too long a delay, pre-focus manually.

Is There an Easy Rule of Thumb?
If you insist! Roughly calculate where your layers of interest lie, then choose a focus point about a third of the way into them. You won’t be far out if you’ve stopped down your lens. For this reason, I think it’s convenient if you have your camera set to Aperture Priority. This means you can adjust the aperture before taking the shot — and the shutter speed will look after itself.

How Many Layers?
My personal view is that three layers are quite sufficient in street photography. Going beyond three layers introduces levels of complexity that are completely out of control, unless some of them have objects that are fixed. In landscape photography you often see wonderful shots of rolling hills in the mist, with five or six layers gradually receding into the distance. On the street you rarely find that kind of subject, unless it’s a slow-moving queue of people lining up in zigzag fashion for a popular event.

Avoid Overlapping Figures?
Some photographers recommend it, others disagree. As in so many aspects of photography there is no hard and fast rule. If you try to keep all the moving figures completely separate you may end up with a somewhat disjointed image in which every figure occupies an island of space. I prefer to see some overlap, while always keeping a clear view of heads and maybe a limb or two.

It’s really important to prevent the onlooker from thinking “What a pity we can’t see what that person looks like.” At the same time, you don’t want unintended effects, such as a street sign that appears to be sticking out of someone’s head. Much of the challenge in taking layered shots involves keeping the layers apart and keeping the various components firmly in their right place.

What Works Best?
My personal preference is for locations where the background is not too far away. If you can see boats floating on water or if you catch a glimpse of the infinite sky your attention tends to wander off into the distance. This is not the dynamic response the layers technique demands. You should keep the eye moving backwards and forwards between layers, not dwelling on distant things.

Fill the frame
Wherever possible I like to fill the frame from edge to edge and from corner to corner. That’s the secret of a great layers shot. You can’t do it if one corner has a chunk of sky in it because all the visual energy will simply leak through into the ether beyond. The very fact that the most distant layer is an integral part of the subject means that your image will have an intimacy which is normally missing from standard street photos.

A layered photo may even be slightly claustrophobic because you’ve compressed the spatial elements in front of you and hemmed them into the image rectangle. Personally I love this effect, but it works best when there’s a focal point of interest near the middle of the frame with other supporting elements at the edges.

Not Just the Squirrel
The above image fulfills most of the criteria for layers that I’ve outlined in this post. There are three planes: the flag, the boy plus the squirrel, then everyone else. Most notably they fill the frame from edge to edge.

But what exactly is going on here? For me, the picture is filled with menace. I snapped it during a troubled period of demonstrations in Bangkok in an area where legendary American photographer James Nachtway had already taken a bullet on the previous day.

Despite outward appearances, these events with their rabble-rousing speeches and numerous side-shows were decidedly unsafe. Just ask the squirrel! Dressed up, coaxed and tormented, he delights the children but he’s watched with an evil eye by the balding lady on the left. The bare legs on the right belong to a person of indeterminate sex, as indeed does the hand that holds the boy’s wrist (strong hand, man’s watch, high heels).

Several faces are partially hidden but in this instance it all seems to work aesthetically. The balance of the image would be upset if we could see the whole face of the little girl with the tee-shirt. Her pink message: “Cool! Cool!” and the squirrel’s anthropomorphically effeminate gesture complete the image.

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