Separation of Layers in Landscapes

When photographing landscapes there are many things to keep in mind. Among the list of things to keep at the top of mind include composition, exposure, light, etc… There are also areas that overlap like light and composition, and this is something I would like to talk about in this article.

The relationship between light and composition can be obvious or subtle to taste in its effect. What I would call this relationship is the separation of layers in landscape photography. Since we don’t have the option to open up the aperture in many cases to create this separation for our subjects we have to rely on other compromises to make the composition work. This separation technique can be created through a couple of different methods and conditions.

Fog and Mist

The layer of ground fog on this morning created just enough depth and separation from what otherwise would have been a cluttered background without losing context of the ridge and flight of birds in the background.

The most obvious way of creating separation between layers that would otherwise compete is with fog and mist. This atmospheric condition creates a softening effect in our images and makes it easier to focus in on a small part of a scene while turning the background into something less distracting. These conditions can also really help to create a sense of depth in the image along with a composition that leads the eye throughout the image.

It can still be easy to rely too heavily on fog and mist to be the image, and we still have to be very conscious of how the image is composed. Otherwise, the light becomes a crutch that we lean on. Showing the relationship between layers and having a creative and compelling composition is the extra touch that puts images in fog and mist over the edge into being truly spectacular.


I quite like the subtle nature that side-lighting can have in separating out layers. It is a technique used heavily in portraiture to have rim-light on a subject making it ‘pop’ out against a background. In landscape photography, this is a difficult thing to capture as it typically occurs as a fleeting moment at sunrise/sunset. When used effectively though it can create amazing dramatic color and carve out the subject of an image nicely at the same time.

A bit of subtle side-lighting separates the trees closest to camera from the background.

Beams of Light

A beam of light becomes the subject while separating itself from the background with swirling sand creating lines and shapes.

Using shafts or beams of light can highlight and separate a subject from everything else included in the image. Similarly to how a spotlight is used in a play to separate the main character, it can be used in landscape photography to bring focus to a small area in the frame. Thinking of things like an island in the sea, a tree in a field, or part of a mountain peak this can really direct a viewer’s attention.

A beam of light could also be the main subject of an image. If the story of a location is a dramatic lighting condition that occurs there it could work well. You do have to make sure the beam of light is separated from the background through additional atmospheric effect being back-lit by the beam of light. This might be a light ray in a storm, rainbow created after a storm, or sand in the air inside a slot canyon.

Putting it all together, it is easy to see how these two key components of landscape photography are intertwined. Light and composition, together, are vital in creating separating from other parts of the scene and what the real subject is. Truly great photography will have these things in mind at the time of clicking the shutter!