General Theory: Strive for Layers of Interest

I could stare at the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson for hours on end. I love them. The more you look at them, the more interesting they get.

You might be wondering what the work of a genius like Cartier-Bresson has to do with lighting. After all, he was the consummate hunter, armed with black-and-white film, a Leica and available light.

Oh, and maybe the best sense of dynamic composition ever to grace a human being.

His photos ooze multiple layers to draw you in and hold your gaze. Compositional layers. Layers of light. Front-to-back layers. Top to bottom. Right to left. And then there's that sense of timing.

I bring up Cartier-Bresson to remind you of one of the pitfalls of creating cool light. One of my biggest weaknesses as a photographer is to be satisfied with well-executed lighting. Nothing wrong with good light, but good light does not a strong picture make.

Light - like timing, composition, content depth, etc., is a layer of interest - not a complete photo. As someone learning about artificial light, it is easy to get caught up in the idea that a picture is hot because the light is hot. That's a big mistake. Light can take a mediocre photo and elevate it, but it can't make something out of nothing.

Let me back up for a second.

When we all started out making photos, we were pretty much taking snapshots. Just point the camera at something interesting and press the button. Good aim meant getting the subject dead in the center.

Later we graduated to the Rule of Thirds. And then, the idea of Breaking the Rule of Thirds in an Interesting Way.

Tom Kennedy is a long-time compass point of mine. Kennedy has run the photo department at the Philadelphia Inquirer, run photo at the National Geographic and, most recently, runs an outstanding online photography division at the Washington Post.

He has also counseled about a bazillion young photographers - myself included - after suffering through their college portfolios. I jokingly say "suffering through" because looking back, I think our stuff must have pretty much looked all the same. College PJ programs tend to produce a lot of similar photos from similar shooters. See if any of these ring a bell:

1. Tight, clean football action shot.
2. Abortion (or, anti-abortion) protest.
3. Candlelight vigil for some very sad event.
4. Frisbee freestyle feature (maybe even a silhouette!)
5. Feature story on a homeless guy.

Kennedy was an early member of the "don't get a 300/2.8 too soon" camp. He said they tend to produce what he called "eye candy."

He's right.

"Eye candy" is a photo that looks cool and clean and has exactly one layer of interest. They look great for about half a second and then there is no reason for your eye to linger any longer.

It's a shame, really. Because shooters who get to that level have usually broken past the "ugly, cluttered, too much crap in your photo" level. But if you are a thinking photographer, you soon realize that you need to break free from the "eye candy" genre and head back toward busy photos. Only the busy photos have to work as busy photos.

Chris Usher, a long-time friend and mentor, introduced me to the idea of consciously rating my photos based on the number of interesting layers that I could identify. Try it. It works. When you start to get it, learn to think that way while you are shooting.

"Top to bottom, left to right, front to back," The Washington Post's Mike Williamson told me once. That's the standard. Fill the frame. Make it work. Make someone want to stay there a while.

Usually, the more layers of interest I can pull off in a photo - and still have it "work" - the happier I am. (Click on the photo for a larger pic.)

Some people never get there.

Others - like my friend and former staff colleague Stefanie Boyar - were disgustingly good at using a wide-angle lens to produce complex, layered, interesting photos right out of college. It was seemingly effortless for her. And on top of that, she's really nice. Which made it impossible to hate her for being so good at such a young age. Oh, well.

Good composition can fill a photo with layers. Getting your static compositional elements lined up and waiting for a dynamic (timed) element can make a photo sing. People like Cartier-Bresson dealt in multiple static and dynamic layers at once. He called it "the decisive moment." But in reality, it could frequently be several decisive moments coming together at once. The guy really was a genius. If you have not studied him, you should.

Light is an element. A single layer. Something to be combined with other layers in a photo to make the photo that much better. If you are taking a portrait, the subject's engagement with the camera (and, thus, the viewer) is another layer. Once nice thing about creating good artificial light is that it frees you up to look for (and snag) those compositional and subject interaction moments.

Don't be satisfied with just "good light." Think of good light as setting the stage for the possibility of a great photo. If you are going to take the trouble to light a scene, take those extra steps to build on your photo's good foundation.

The work you put in at that point will make a world of difference.

Is the next Henri Cartier-Bresson out there stalking the world with a Leica? Probably not. He (or she) is probably figuring out how to use their Nikon D200 (or Canon 30D) just like the rest of us.

Heck, he might be reading this column right now.

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Anonymous Pete Millson said...

HCB takes the kind of portraits I really strive for. All with available light though and this is where I find I still have a lot of work to do.

I really enjoy lighting and adding drama or interest through lighting. But one thing always troubles me. It's very rare that I feel I'm getting the REALLY great and well-observed ('multi-layered') pictures I quite often did with just my nikon and a 35mm lens.

It can be done I know but I really want to learn how to set up lights (if they're needed) in such a way that I can still CONCENTRATE on what I'm looking at and not light ratios.


June 09, 2006 4:18 AM  
Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

David -- I hope you know just how good you are at teaching. You're posts on subjects other than lighting, I'm thinking of this one and "When Are You Gonna Learn" are as useful and as exciting as any of the lighting stuff. Thanks a ton.

June 09, 2006 5:29 AM  
Blogger Ant said...


Great post, especially about the layers in a picture and having impact is not the same as being informative.

Keep up the good work, I for one am interested not only in lighting but in improving all aspects of my work.



June 09, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger EssPea Photography said...

In your portfolio list you forgot to mention the "Chased the firetruck and got a picture of the house on fire with the family/owner outside watching on".

June 09, 2006 8:35 AM  
Anonymous Tim Nelson said...

I've also long admired HCB, and I tend to "walk around" inside many of his images when I look at them, with their layers of interest, as you describe. Another photographer who created many richly complex images is Raghubir Singh, who used HCB's esthetic for his street photography and other images of India. His are in color, of course, and many made use of fill flash!

June 09, 2006 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Jim Nelson said...

First I would like to thank you for this site. I am a beginning photographer, though I've taken snapshots for years, and I am learning from you site. Though my first lighting attempt was a dismal failure, I'll keep trying.

I do have a point of confusion. On your Archeologists assignment page you state "Setting the camera to its high synch speed lets me use the least amount of strobe possible. Setting the strobe to full power (and moving it back until it balances) then gives me the greatest possible working distance." Also on your May 9th post you state "As you have probably already guessed, the shutter was at a 250th, to keep the flash from having to work unnecessarily hard."

I understand the "move the strobe back and forth" part, what I don't get is the "least amount of strobe possible" part. If you are using the strobes on manual how does "the shutter was at a 250th, to keep the flash from having to work unnecessarily hard" work?

If the strobe is on manual won't it will provide the set quantity of light no matter what the shutter speed? It seams to me once you go to manual flash, the shutter speed will have no effect on how hard the flash works. I understand the shutter speed will effect the amount of ambient light. What am I missing?

June 09, 2006 10:14 AM  
Blogger EssPea Photography said...

Jim you may want to check out the forums we have setup over at Flickr:

Your question might get more attention.

For an answer, when you are shooting at a fast shutter speeds you need to compensate for the lack of light by opening up the aperature (eg, increase the shutter speed one stop and you need to open the aperature up one stop to expose the picture the same as before you increased the shutter speed).

It is not the shutter speed directly that helps out the flash, it is the wider aperature that the faster shutter speed implies (the wider the aperature the less power you need to use from the flash to expose the image).

Hope that helps.

June 09, 2006 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Jon said...

Been lurking for a while, but have to comment on this post, highly insightful and you've managed to put something that I've been thinking about into a solid concept, thankyou! Now I know what it is I'm looking for to get 'those' shots when I go out.

Great work

June 09, 2006 12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good post. Light is only one aspect of great photography; the decisive moment carries a photo so well. Alex Webb uses light and layering to amazing results, as does Sebastio Salgado. In those photographer's works, there's usually 3 of 4 pictures within a picture...

June 09, 2006 1:12 PM  
Blogger Phil Pereira said...

Great post David. I've been trying to start creating photos with layers of interest. One photo I took fairly recently has a couple of layers and speaks volumes (in my mind)

I hope to use photography as a way to tell a story within a single image.

June 09, 2006 1:27 PM  
Anonymous nim said...

Well, i´m spaniard, and my english is not good enought to write what I´m thinking. Anyways, all I´m able to say is just: "I agree".
(Sorry my engrish) :)

June 09, 2006 6:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First "When are you gonna learn" and now this. 2 of the best post I've read online. David thank you please keep them coming your helping out so many.

June 09, 2006 10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truly lovely post. Thank you.

But please don't count film out just yet. :D

June 10, 2006 12:21 AM  
Anonymous Patrick said...

Thanks for this post. I myself have a photography blog. It's great to find someone who clearly communicates the deeper aspects of photography.

June 11, 2006 12:33 AM  
Anonymous Reg said...

One thing I feel is a problem is maintaining a creative eye when a lot of editors in the local papers have none.
All the local papers in my area are a lot smaller and dont have any photo editor or indeed anyone who has any concept of what makes a good image. The amount of times I've been sent to a job because " we might have some holes that need filling", shows the respect they have.
The grip and grin is their staple and everyone must be steady and facing the camera.
The worst came for me when I was asked to cover a Novena ( a big religious thing) and I got what I thought was a lovely, W Eugene Smith inspired, shot of a grand parent from behind leading her two grandkids into the church. REJECTED cos "we couldnt see their faces"
If I give them a choice they'll always use the standard.
This site however has given me more inspiration than I can say. Ive started looking over my old photo books with fresh eyes and deleting a lot of my portfolio and setting new targets again
Thanks a lot

June 11, 2006 4:37 AM  
Anonymous Mike Wong said...

I can't agree more. I think a lot of it has to do with how photographers develop. It's a shift in mindset from exclude to include.

Anyways great stuff, I really enjoy your thoughts and writing =)

June 14, 2006 2:48 AM  
Blogger tommy said...

The post today really make me stop and ponder.......its is really great to have moments like this that I feel really comes from the heart, its not about equipment or technique but the whole point of making the image...great lighting or techniques dont get you great images, only good images that last a few seconds of tugs at my heart string because it is exactly where I am now,,,,trying to create great images that last....thks for sharing

July 29, 2007 4:47 AM  
Blogger ChuckEye said...

HCB was an excellent editor... we've never seen the shots on the same roll, on either side of the frame that he chose to share with the world. They may have sucked just as much as anyone else's.

July 29, 2007 12:00 PM  
Blogger jakub (co jozef) said...

what a great and truthful thought, but i am afraid, that digital ege is all about snapshoot, but i still believe that people including me will learn from sites like this, so keep posting great stuff

July 29, 2007 12:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an insightful observation. I have often wondered why my long lens sports/nature images don't generate more interest. It's because on the thumbnail, you have already seen what there is to see. The reader scans on to the next image, looking for something that will make it worthwhile to spend time on the larger view.

What a great idea, 'don't buy a 300/2.8 too soon'.


July 30, 2007 1:30 AM  
Blogger Josh Silfen said...

Great post. I read it about three years ago and it has really stuck with me -- particularly the idea of fighting the temptation to create beautiful shots with "exactly one layer of interest". I mentioned it to a friend the other day and told him I'd email him the link. It took me a long time to find it, but reading it again made it worth it.

Creating "layers of interest" is something I have always striven for in my work as a cinematographer, but I used to have a hard time putting my finger on just what it was that bothered me about a nice beautiful long lens close-up. This post really hit the nail on the head, and gave me the vocabulary to discuss it in a logical and articulate way. Thanks so much!

May 25, 2010 3:02 PM  

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