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3 Principles to Improve Your Foregrounds

Russ Barker (LeCCy)

Keywords: composition, guides, tips

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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.

Foregrounds Sample © LeCCy

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.



Leading lines

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.


In Figure 1 at right it seems clear to the viewer that the subject is the mountain in the top of the frame: - the singular direction of the frosted reeds in the foreground lead the viewer’s eye from the bottom of the frame to the mountains in the top of the frame. Here the frosted reeds lead the eye along to the conclusion of the image – the day’s last light hitting the tops of the mountains.


Straight lines and geometric patterns such as these can be found all over nature (if you are actively looking for them!) and will always provide assistance in trying to frame your shot. Be patient and look for foregrounds that complement the image and effectively lead the eye to the main subject. In Figure 1 the impact of the frosted reeds would have been much less if they were piled in a jumble. The direction of the reeds, coupled with the light frost, is what makes them an effective part of the composition.


Foregrounds 1 © LeCCy


Once again nature geometrics are giving our viewer a helping hand here. The ridges in the foreground of Figure 2 at right are leading towards what is our final vision for the image – that wonderful sunrise over the cliff tops.


Now I can already hear you saying ‘but wait a minute, that’s simple if the rocks form those lines!’

Well, here’s the deal – I guarantee that if you look hard enough you will find ‘something’ in your view that will be able to act as leading lines. The devil is in the detail and being able to separate everything else from the composition and taking the time to find those lines.


Foregrounds 2 © LeCCy


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.


Foregrounds sample image 3 © LeCCy


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.


Obviously no lines are apparent in Figure 4 at right, but the composition nonetheless leads the viewer into the image. The two rocks in the fore and middle grounds join the third in the background to form a nice arc into that wonderful sunset and the sea stack in the distance, forming an invisible line that we would see if we could just join up those dots.


resources/images/nikonians/articles/guides/foregrounds/Foregrounds 4 © Russ Barket (LeCCy)

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:-

Foregrounds Sample Image 5 © Russ Barker (LeCCy)


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.


Simplicity © LeCCy


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.


In Figure 6 at right the foreground is a major part of the scene. Whilst an argument could be made for the green rock being a lead in line of sorts due to its orientation in the frame, it is actually much more than that – it’s the most important element of the composition with the sea, sky and pier forming a backdrop for this.

What makes it the most important part of the composition? The rock has impact here because it is separated from the rest of the scene, and the light striking the rock is of a different quality than the light in the rest of the scene. Furthermore approximately 20% of the image is the rock. Of course there were many other rocks that could be included in the composition but none were as vegetated and vibrant as this. Therefore, Figure 6 gives centre stage to this lovely seaweed covered rock in the foreground, bathed in the light of the setting sun. Illuminated by a low sun and surrounded by shadows, the rock dissolves from the rest of the foreground and simplifies the image.


Foregrounds 6 © LeCCy



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.

Foregrounds 7 © LeCCy

Get Close and Get Low

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.


Here’s a final image (Figure 8) to bring together all the elements I have talked about.

Captured with me laid on my front, camera mounted on the tripod about 6 inches above ground -those leading lines are present in the rocks but also the foreground provides something more– the geometric lines are enhanced by the cross checked pattern and finally the inclusion of the reflection in the middle of the frame.

The composition is intended to let the viewer’s gaze flow through the image and find something of interest at every point. But remember, right at the beginning, I said that everything is subjective so that will be up to you to decide.


Foregrounds 8 © LeCCy


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.


(14 Votes )
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Originally written on June 28, 2010

Last updated on May 24, 2016

Russ Barker Russ Barker (LeCCy)

Awarded for his excellent  contributions to the Resources Laureate Ribbon awarded for winning a Nikonians Annual Photo Contest

Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom
Basic, 1464 posts


Duncan Drummond (Hallyboy) on March 15, 2014

Thanks for a very useful article. Concise, clear text with well explained beautiful photos equally clearly illustrating the text.

Rex Deal (rexd) on July 4, 2013

I have read these articles and think my photograph " The Bulldogger" meet this criteria

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