One thing I have learned is that foregrounds are just as important as the mid and background of a photo. When studying composition you see the term “foreground interest” come up a lot, and for good reason. Foreground interest refers to using an element in the foreground of a scene to hold or direct the eye. Whether it’s a rock, wave, swirl, or line. In this article I will show examples of some of my work that use natural foreground interest that tie in with composition, to help inspire some ideas in your own work to create more impact in your foregrounds. It may seem difficult at first, but after time your eye will begin to view a scene and catch these elements. A trick I was learned was that whatever catches your eye first, usually is a good starting point to work with in foreground interest. You saw it first for a reason, it stood out.
This photo was taken along the central coast of California near Big Sur. There are all kinds of great rock formations along the rugged coast line that make great scenes for seascapes. In this photo, one thing that really stood out to me was the green succulent plants clinging to the edges of the rocks. When my eye saw it, I knew it should be included in the scene. Very often (not always!) for using great foreground interest you will use wide angle lenses. These will allow you to get extremely close to smaller objects, while still keeping an expansive view over a scene. I took this image with my Canon 6D full frame with a EF 17-40mm lens, at 17mm. The succulents were about one foot (.3m) from my lens. When shooing very close to a subject, be sure to shoot at your highest aperture to ensure you maintain sharp focus throughout the entire scene. To learn more about that, research “hyperfocal length” and “depth of field”.
A simple and classic composition a location in the Vermilion Cliffs of northern Arizona. These rock formations are loaded with beautiful and interesting shapes, colors, and patterns that make endless options for you to play with. These grooved holes in the rock made a perfect line leading the eye straight through the image and in to the rock formation behind it. This photo was taken at 20mm to get in nice and tight with the cool patterns, just after sunset.
A wider view over the same location in northern Arizona. I wanted to create a photo that would show a fair amount of the location without shrinking it down by being too wide. Sometimes it can be a real challenge to take a photo of an expansive view of a location with so much going on without making it look like a mess. I noticed the curving lines in the rock and how they kind of lead the way in to the rest of the location. So I used this as my foreground to lead in to the photo, it is subtle, but I think helps simply and makes the image more pleasing to the eye.
To really get foreground to compliment the rest of the scene, you can always look for patterns and shapes. When on location take a overall look of a scene with your eye, do you notice any shapes that stand out? Can you match them, mirror them, or compliment them? Train your eye to break down each element in a scene this way and it will help you to create more unique and interesting photos.
This is a photo of The Subway slot canyon in Utah’s Zion National Park. This location has been photographed a million times over, and for good reason. I spent several hours inside, trying to find a unique perspective of the canyon. Below the image I tried to recreate how my eye viewed the scene by breaking down the shapes and lines. First I noticed the big circular hole in the rock that mirrored the shape of the entrance (or exit) of the slot canyon. The second element I used to move the eye was the curving line the rock ledge makes. I wanted to create a balance with the shapes and use the line to move the eye through the photo. This is a great and effective way to create simplicity and elegance in a landscape image.
Two more examples of a similar concept, mirroring and balancing shapes with the foreground. This is a powerful technique to learn when composing landscape photos. The first image is taken along the beach of southern California. The clouds had a nice arch through the sky that I wanted to almost connect with the curves of the shoreline’s water. This took some patience and a lot of trying. Using the water from waves and a slower shutter speed (anywhere from 1/6-4 seconds is my favorite depending on conditions) I took image after image until the water made a curving line that seemed to connect to the sky.
The second image was taken along a lake in western Norway. The shoreline of the lake had a green algae that was passing the current and gotten stuck along rocks, making almost unnatural seeming swirls. In the sky there was a curving line of clouds that I tried to balance with the swirling lines in the algae. I wanted the two to almost seem connected and make the eye travel from the foreground in the rocks, through the reflection in the lake, passed the mountains in the background, and in to the sky, and back down, using the rocks as the prime focal point and anchor for the eye.
Above is another breakdown for one of my photos from Iceland. The chunks of glacial ice creates an obvious strong focal point and perfect element for foreground interest. These elements sitting alone on the black sand would be enough to create a strong photo, but not enough to give some energy and impact in my opinion. The gentle waves pushing in and out of the shoreline filled out the image and the balance. I waited until I got a photo of a wave that pushed just between the ice, creating a nice round shape between them, that worked out perfectly with the dull light spot in the sky where the cloud hid behind the heavy clouds.
I hope this gives you some inspiration to work on creating more impact and punch in your foregrounds!
Sean Ensch is an travel, landscape, and underwater photographer from California, currently spending a year living in Norway.