Photo Composition: Composing a multi-layered photograph

Frédéric Bazille – Scène d’été.

One question I am regularly asked about photo composition and some of my pictures during my workshops is how to compose multi-layered photographs?
I don’t think there are any secrets to making complex photographs. It is first a matter of balancing form, elements and masses. The difficulty is probably to be able to use all the elements in the frame to enable easy viewing of the image. It is important that every element is straightforward to read but visually connected to the others in order to create “a visual harmony”, whether the scene is chaotic or not.
Now I would like to say that playing with form and elements is not only related to photography but to pictorial art as a whole. However, rather than entering into long and boring theory about using rules to compose images, I would recommend having a look at these masters’ paintings in order to make a few observations.

I would like you to look at how the space is used in the frame. From the foreground to the background, look at the position of every element (including the people) composing the paintings. Don’t you think they have an allocated space, a position in the frame that makes the whole painting balanced and easy to read? Have you noticed that there are not many forms overlapping each other, helping the painting’s readability? Even in the bottom painting, the crowded part of the painting is well organised. The man with a white suit is just bent enough to give space to three people talking in the background. The lady drinking is right between the man in a brown suit and the lady in a blue dress. The same man with a brown suit is right in the middle between the lady drinking, the lady chatting with him and the man with a black hat and brown suit in the background. They make a lovely, well organised small crowd.

These paintings were first drawn, but playing with reality is even more complex as it is constantly moving. We have to deal with the uncertainty and the unknown. To make a photograph like these paintings is possible but rare in real life. It is what makes street photography challenging. But here in these paintings is the key to exercise your eyes in order to help you compose and anticipate the organisation of multi-layered moments of life, whether in the street, at social events or even for the making of a corporate photograph. You must understand that finding the right angle (or wait for the right moment) can help the organisation of forms/elements in order to find the right balance and the readability of your image.

Also you should never forget that the content is also an important part of your photograph (like the message you are trying to communicate).

Georges Seurat – Une baignade à Asnières

Georges Seurat – Un dimache après midi à la Grande Jatte

PierreAugusteRenoirPierre Auguste Renoir – Le déjeuner des canotiers