Foregrounds – More Bang for Your Buck!
One of the most effective techniques for adding that “WOW!” factor to your landscape photographs is to include an interesting foreground which complements your composition and helps the viewer to see what your subject is. If you plan and design your photograph carefully, the foreground can lead the viewer’s eye through the image, ending at the subject.
If you look around at the images that you admire by world-renowned photographers you will see this technique employed time and time again. Barely an issue of “Outdoor Photographer” or “Outdoor Photography” magazines will be published without images that use the foreground as an important part of the composition. To see the technique from its early days it would be worthwhile studying the work of David Muench. Whilst we know that all things are subjective- and right and wrong is a tricky thing to define in the art of photography- there are some things that we can all try to bear in mind before we press the shutter that may help us show the viewer why a scene captured our attention in the first instance and to show the subject to its best advantage.
Of course, these pointers should never be used as rules – even the most ardent proponents of compositional techniques such as the widely accepted (….and somewhat misnamed) rule of thirds would agree that this is a guideline rather than a rule and in photography, as in life, the oft quoted ‘rules are there to be broken (or at least bent)’ applies.
However, even within the loose parameters of artistic vision, there are fundamentals we can all think about at the moment of “The Click” that will help bring life into our images.
Perhaps the most often discussed are ‘leading lines’ and whilst this can apply to composition in general it is doubly important for effective foregrounds. In its most basic form what we are thinking about here is trying to create a visual flow through your composition that will take the viewer from one area of the image to another. Ideally we strive for this journey to be a smooth and pleasant one, rather than jerky and disconnected.
Leading lines - Not always lines
Once again, in Figure 3 below, we can see that the foreground almost acts as a finger pointing to our subject, which is the Tufa and that glorious alpenglow on the Sierra Nevada. This visual flow continues in the lean of the right most formation, which replicates the angle of the foreground rocks.
An important consideration to remember is that leading lines don’t necessarily have to be straight – indeed they don’t even need to be lines as such! Confused? Well, just stick with me a little longer.
In all four of the above examples it would be wrong to assume that these compositions were the only ones available (and also a mistake to assume that they were the best available!). These foregrounds became my choice after carefully studying the terrain in front of me - in all four images the elements shown are just a small fraction of what was available. Perhaps that can be best be illustrated by Figure 5 at right:-
Taken at the same focal length and only a few minutes before Figure 4 it shows the wider context of which Figure 4 is just a part. The light is still good and indeed it is by no means a terrible image but it lacks the continuity and impact of the first. Why? Well it’s a lack of those leading lines – there are too many rocks here to provide the image with any structure. Our eye is left free to wander around aimlessly. The leading lines in Figures 1 to 4 aim the viewer’s eye without allowing it to wander around. This concept brings us nicely to our next area of discussion – keeping it simple.
One thing that you may have all noticed about the first 4 examples is that the foregrounds are all simple and well defined. To a great extent this is a direct function of finding those lead in lines that I am so obsessed with – but there is also a broader point to be made here which applies to general composition as much as finding those nice foregrounds. It’s a phrase often used by photographers and often forgotten by us all in the heat of “The Click”:- ‘Less is more’, which is also the principle behind #2 of Tom Boné's composition tips.
Simplicity - " Less is 'more' "
Whilst I have only shown one example of the difference between what I would say was a coherent foreground and a cluttered one, this could be equally applied to all the other 3 examples. In all cases the leading lines were formed as part of a process of trying to simplify the composition.
This principle of simplicity need not apply just to leading lines. Whilst leading lines are important we may sometimes want to fill our frame with a good deal of foreground that isn’t a leading line, but rather an integral subject within the composition.
If faced with a beach full of attractive ice sculptures the careless photographer could be tempted to include a whole mass of them which would be a mistake. By trying to isolate a single piece of clear ice, Figure 7 at right emphasizes the solitary piece of clear ice in the foreground and it makes the composition stronger. Once again we are trying to explain to the viewer what we believe is important in the composition.
Finally it should be noted that all of the images (except Figure 4) applied another technique that will help you out. It’s a simple one that I use often – get close and get low. When using a wide angle lens try experimenting with your shooting perspective. If you are used to shooting at shoulder height, try shooting from a foot above ground with that foreground element as close to your lens as you can get it. Of course, this will require the successful application of other techniques, such as correct hyperfocal focusing and a good tripod and other sturdy support to keep those images sharp, but those are covered elsewhere (at the links) and I encourage you to investigate them.
So – remember ‘leading lines’, ‘less is more’ and ‘close and low’. It doesn’t seem too daunting to apply these principles before pressing the shutter. You might have to scout around a little, and occasionally you might have to get down on your belly. Even so, your camera will thank you for allowing it to make such vibrant images.
My gratitude to the late Nikonian Bob Tomerlin (drjimbob) for his inducement, support and help to make this article.