I’ve been subconsciously avoiding this subject, perhaps because of my ambivalent feelings about it. Foregrounds can be a frustrating part of landscape photography. In my opinion they can be both under- and over-emphasized. Let’s just say in the past I have had some trouble keeping the proper perspective regarding foregrounds, but I now believe I have a fairly balanced approach.
I should say right here that despite being thought important only in landscape photography, foreground is often a key element in candid people shots, sports imagery and more. Here are a few things a good foreground can do for a picture:
- An interesting and/or very close foreground can add impact to any image.
- Foreground elements can form leading lines, directing the eyes of the viewer to your main subject or toward the center of your image.
- Similar to the previous point, the shapes of foreground elements can mimic the shape of your main subject or background. This essentially increases the impact of your main subject or background.
- Foregrounds can help to add depth to your images. But it is rare that a foreground alone can give your image depth. See my previous post on the important subject of depth.
- If you want to give your main subject top billing, you can simply place it in the foreground.
Many people just starting out in photography tend to look right over foregrounds, concentrating a bit too much on that sunset, that sailboat, those animals, etc. Then they learn from the “experts” that they should always look for interesting foregrounds to give their images a lot of depth and impact. After hearing this a few dozen times, many of us run around stressing about foregrounds all the time. Like most advice in photography, this little nugget is abused and stretched beyond reason. Yes foregrounds are important. No they’re not absolutely necessary in an image, no they will not automatically give your pictures depth or impact.
Like anything in photography (life?) foregrounds should be used thoughtfully and judiciously. Here are some tips on how to find and use them to help improve your images:
- There are times you will want to sniff out foregrounds like a bloodhound sniffs out an escaped convict. When you have a beautiful sky with a relatively flat horizon (i.e. you’re not in the Himalayas or Patagonia), you have a pretty but two-dimensional image. This is a good time to search out interesting foregrounds.
* In the image below, for example, I was up on top of a hill near sunset overlooking Lake Powell in Arizona. There were other people taking pictures, including two or three other serious photographers. As the sky grew colorful, people began snapping away. I suddenly realized it was a dull image without foreground. So I scrambled quickly down the embankment, soon coming upon sandstone bedrock that wasn’t visible from above.
I quickly found a place where the outcrops formed angled shapes that (with a low camera angle) pointed into the sky. The orange clouds also formed linear shapes, so luckily enough, I had an effective simple composition. My willingness to chance missing the light in order to search for a better image paid off in this case. But I could have easily been skunked and gotten nothing.
- In most cases your foreground elements should support but not dominate your image. There are major exceptions, so please don’t take this as a rule. Instead, think of all your images as a balancing act between each of the major elements within the frame. The balance between foreground and background (plus middle ground) is just one of the little decisions you make before you press the shutter button.
- Some people think if they have a fascinating foreground they will automatically have a fascinating picture. But remember simple is often best in photography, and this definitely applies to foregrounds. This is actually related to the previous point. If your foreground is amazing, it will most often become your main subject. If your background has an interesting subject or is otherwise awesome, you might be trying to jam more than one picture into your frame. The main elements of your picture end up competing for the viewer’s attention – not a prescription for success.
- Instead of desperately looking for the most fascinating foreground in history, it’s better to find something simple with perhaps a shape that complements your background or main subject. Then to give that simple foreground more impact all you have to do is move closer. Moving closer brings opportunities, along with challenges…
* If you’re using a wide-angle lens moving closer to your foreground elements is necessary so they don’t look too small. Wide angles (focal lengths of 35 mm. or less) are often used in landscape photography of course. But they’re also used in environmental portraiture. This is when you photograph people along with a bit of their surroundings.
* Moving closer will help to bring out any interesting texture in your foreground elements. Just be careful to expose so you can see the texture. It’s common to need a graduated neutral density filter in these cases, so you don’t make the sky/background too bright.
* When you move closer to your foreground, it becomes more difficult to keep everything in focus front to back. This is known as good depth of field. You will need to use the smallest aperture available on your lens, which is usually f/22. It also helps greatly to know the particular ability of that lens to achieve good depth of field. This requires repeated use and experimentation. The small aperture means you will most often need a tripod.
- It can be very effective to allow a foreground element to fade to black; in other words form a silhouette. It’s most effective when the silhouette’s shape is recognizable. It’s usually not necessary to move as close to a silhouetted foreground as you would an illuminated one. This frees you from some of the above challenges.
- Speaking of fading to black, great images can be had with no recognizable foreground, instead using a featureless or dark middle-ground. Smooth expanses of water, featureless grass, fog, a dark band of rocks or trees, any of these can form a sort of mid-ground “base”, anchoring your main background subject. These sorts of anchors can also partly or fully frame your image.
- Lastly, don’t feel you always need a foreground. Often a very effective image can be had with no foreground. You can either utilize middle-grounds as mentioned above or simply zoom in on the background to highlight specific portions of it.
I want to leave you with a sort of truism in photography, at least as far as I’m concerned. It has to do with the point I made at the beginning of the post and again with that last bullet point. If you go around shooting nothing but deep images where you’re 2 feet from foreground, you’ll undoubtedly get plenty of compliments. This is how most people are taught to shoot landscapes, and these sorts of images have a “pro” feel to them.
But if you go off on foregrounds your portfolio will suffer just as much as if you had never learned about their importance in the first place, as if you had stuck with shooting nothing but two-dimensional backgrounds. Mix things up instead. Diversity in your portfolio is worth having. And it doesn’t just happen on its own. You really have to work at it. The good news is that it’s fun! Variety, after all, is the spice of life.