Here are my kids playing on the ruins of an oak tree on the lower slopes of Mount Diablo in Central California. In the distant background, the first rain clouds of the season are rolling in off the ocean.
I strive to make photos that grab attention without reverting to heavy-handed processing, so one of my favorite photography compliments is, “Your pictures look so alive, it’s like you could walk right into the scene.” Layering details within a composition is one technique that I use to give my photos that true-to-life feeling of depth. This post is a quick lesson in layering compositions using three recent photos of my kids. To start, take a look at the shot above. Notice all the different layers. Starting at the front are the broken branches at the bottom of the frame. Back further is the angled tree limb that Ella has climbed. Behind that is Holden, and behind him is another large branch. Then, there is another toppled oak in the near background, and further back you see the horizon and approaching rain clouds. This fairly open scene was perfect for layering details. It helps to have some of the elements overlap so the viewer can easily tell what’s in front and what’s in back. If Holden wasn’t standing between those two logs, you wouldn’t have a reference to tell how far apart they are and the photo would look flat. Also, I purposely cropped off the top of the limb that Ella is climbing to make it feel like the tree is too big to be contained in one photo. Sometimes, as evidenced by this example, chopping a major part of the composition with the edge of the frame imbues it with magic and the picture is stronger for it.
Regular readers should be familiar with the tree swing by now. I include it on this blog every few months.
I shot this photo of Ella with my Canon Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens. I love this lens because it focuses faster than any other Canon lens that I’m aware of, and it’s medium telephoto nature means that the 85mm does a great job compressing the background (makes distant objects look bigger) without going overboard and looking fake. 85mm is close enough to human vision (approximately 42mm) that we don’t notice the trick. When using a telephoto lens the background subjects blur out, which means they won’t hold much detail, but that doesn’t mean you can’t layer your background to create depth. It’s actually the opposite. As you get further from the main subject the photo gets more fuzzy, which when used skillfully, can create a great sense of volume.Take a look at the layers in this photo. First, of course, is Ella in sharp focus. Directly behind her and slightly out of focus is a tree branch from the tree that the swing hangs from. Further back are the rolling hills and a blurred out oak. And in the far distance is Mount Diablo — the mountain so out of focus that it takes on an impressionistic quality. When a person looks at this photo they of course see my smiling daughter first, but almost simultaneously they are hit with that feeling of massive depth. You can tell that we were having a fun afternoon within an enormous and beautiful landscape.
Holden mounts his Strider Bike while Ella takes off on her scooter. In the background is the Pittsburgh, CA Power Plant.
I call the above photo “Industrial Unicorn” because the composition copies one of Ella’s girly, pink and purple fantasy unicorn puzzles, except in my photo, I replaced the unicorn with Holden and the princess castle with a coal-fired power plant. This photo, and the unicorn puzzle, both use layers to create deep perspective. Let’s go through the layers here. First, it’s Holden and his bike. Then, you have that curving path leading into the distance. Facing away from the camera part way up the path is Ella. Even though she’s facing away from the camera and small in the frame, Ella is still an important part of the composition. Most viewers can guess at the size of the human body relative to its surroundings so placing Ella in the distance really helps to scale the scene. The same goes for the even smaller fishermen in the middle background. Those small figures in relation to Holden in the foreground give the viewer guidance as to the size and scale of the scene (the unicorn puzzle uses a deer poking its head out of the forest for the same effect). The slightly out of focus power plant in the background adds further adds volume as well as a strong sense of place to the image.
Photos of your kids are usually not going to be masterpieces unless you get lucky and the kids are miraculously dressed in sensible clothes and you are also simultaneously gifted with great light and an interesting background. This doesn’t happen on a regular Saturday afternoon park visit. Of course, you could work really hard to take perfect photos of your kids with elaborate planning and cute outfits, but I don’t want to ruin our day with that. Instead, I try to work with what’s in front of me and make interesting photos without getting impatient with the kids and eating up our fun times together. Taking candid kid photos is all about having the right mindset. Here’s a short video where I give you some tips on taking better candid photos of kids.*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!