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Photographic Composition, Part 3

Using foreground as a composition tool.


This is part three of a four part article on photographic composition. The fourth part of the article will appear in a few weeks. Here is part one and part two of the photo composition article.


9926, Dead Horse Point Dawn, Pink Rocks and Juniper, Near Canyonlands National Park, Utah

All of the foreground rock and bushes bring the picture to life.



The use of foreground is a very important composition technique. It is something that I use constantly in my landscapes. Foreground is that area in the picture that is quite close, perhaps two to five feet in front of the camera. To be most effective, foreground usually must be very close--two to three feet from the lens is best.

Wildflowers are a type of foreground I use a lot. For flowers to really work as foreground they need to be quite close to the lens, just as close as the lens will allow. The wider the lens, the closer you can get. Of course, when everything from very close to very far away is sharp and in focus, this means that you must also have a very long depth of field. If you don't know what depth of view is or don't know how to attain it, it will help if you read my articles on depth of field. Keeping both the close foreground and the distant background in sharp focus is probably the most important part of making good landscape photographs.

Once in a while, if you are really lucky you come upon a whole field of wildflowers--acres and acres of gorgeous reds and yellows and blues and pinks and whites. The temptation is to get it all in the picture--everything, every last flower. Forget it. This never works. The whole field is too big. If you try to get it all using a wide angle lens, you end up with teeny wienie little flowers too small to even see.

The right way to take this picture is to select the best bunch of flowers in the field, get as close to them as possible and use them as foreground. The rest of the field then becomes middle ground and background.

The corollary to this rule is that it is not even necessary to find a whole sea of flowers in the first place. Just one small, magnificent bunch will do. Get good and close to the one lonesome bunch, and they are better than a whole sea of flowers. You can do the same thing with reflections in a lake. A whole lake isn't necessary for a good reflection shot; if you get close enough, a small pond or even a puddle will fill the picture and work just as well as a whole huge lake. Actually the puddle usually works much better than the whole lake.

One of the best pictures I've ever seen of the Palouse area in Idaho was taken by a friend on mine; most of the picture is actually a mud puddle in the middle of a mucky dirt road reflecting a gorgeous spring hay field. Except you don't see the mucky dirt road, just the wonderful reflection. I've also seen some pretty wonderful reflections in one micron deep puddles on the roofs of wet cars. Keep your eyes open; some of the most beautiful scenes around are where you would never expect them.

Lots of other stuff also works well as foreground for landscapes: old gnarled logs or stumps, brightly colored leaves in a river, a big rock with colorful lichens, dried grasses. Almost anything is better than nothing, even a nondescript bush is better than no foreground at all.

One on the best foregrounds is water. Lakes are great. They often have wonderful reflections of the sky or mountains. Using lakes as foreground serves another purpose; they're great for simplifying the scene. They eliminate all that attention grabbing clutter and often provide simple, strong lines for organizing a picture.

Moving water also works well as foreground. When you shoot moving water there are two choices. First, you can freeze the water in place by shooting at a very fast shutter speed like 1/250 or 1/500 or more. This results in a shot where every drop and sparkle and rivulet of water stands out sharply and clearly. Wildlife photographers use this technique in the classic shot of the black bear catching the jumping salmon in mid air.

Most landscape photographers also use a second way to shoot moving water. They shoot very, very slowly--perhaps a one, or two, or three second exposure. The slow exposure blurs the water. This is the way I like to shoot moving water. The results can be quite beautiful. The water looks like steam or liquid mist as it pours over rocks and down cascades.

One plus to shooting at a slow speed like this is that slow speeds mean very small f-stops and this in turn means large depths of field and the ability to keep both foreground and background sharp. In fact if you plan on using moving water as close foreground and still keep the background sharp, blurring the water is pretty much unavoidable.

When shooting moving water, occasionally the scene is so bright that the exposure meter won't let you shoot slow enough to blur it. There is so much light that you have to shoot fast to get the exposure right. One solution is to put a polarizing filter on the lens. This will lower the light by as much as two stops. Other solutions are to use slower film or neutral density filters which help lower the intensity of the light. But since you are most likely using a digital camera, it is also easy to use your slowest ISO speed to help you shoot more slowly. This is undoubtedly the the best solution since using your slowest ISO speed will also give you the best possible picture quality.

Foregrounds can also be frames. A frame is anything that is close-up and that can be used to enclose the main image on any of its sides. One of the best frames is overhanging tree branches. It's amazing how much this simple technique can improve a picture. Generally, frames like this are used to set off mountains, or lakes or other background subjects.

You can make the tree branch frame either a black silhouette or give it color and detail by altering the exposure. If the branch is considerably darker than the background, it's best to just turn it into a totally black silhouette. Do this by metering on the brightest part of the picture. This will underexpose the branch which was a bit dark to begin with. This keeps the picture simple and also makes the exposure of the main subject much easier.

If the sun is coming over your shoulder, the branch will usually be quite bright. In this case, the branch and the background will be about the same brightness and both can be exposed properly to reveal color and detail.

I often use foreground to provide the main color of the picture. Backgrounds are usually not very colorful. Distant mountains, for instance are often a dull, lifeless blue or purple. Without a colorful foreground, the picture would be pretty blah. The Colorado picture to the left is a good example of this.

Wildflowers, lichens on a rock, bright new spring leaves, an autumn oak bush or a colorful aspen branch all make great foregrounds that provide brilliant colors.

Pictures with close foregrounds are usually shot with a wide angle lens. This works best when the background is not particularly good but the foreground is great. With a wide angle, the background will fade into the distance, become very small, and merely provide a backdrop for the foreground which then becomes the main subject.

You can also do the opposite: emphasize the background, and still use the foreground to accent the background. This works well when the background is the real subject, a dramatic mountain spire, for instance. To emphasize the background, move twenty of thirty feet back from the foreground and put on a long lens. If you are back far enough, you can still include the foreground but now the background will be sucked in to become bigger and more dramatic while the foreground becomes less dominant.

Be careful of your depth of field when shooting this way though. Longer lens have a much shorter depth of field than a wide angle lens. It is very easy to blur either the foreground or background or even both. I hate to think about how many times I have done just this and ruined the picture. When using a long lens, remember to use the smallest possible f-stop to increase the depth of field; small f-stops increase depth of field for long lenses just like they do for wide angle lenses.

Don't underestimate the power of using foreground. It should be one of the main things you look for when scouting for good picture spots. That wonderfully scenic mountain range will look pretty ordinary until a nice foreground is set in front of it.




Below are a few more pictures that illustrate the importance of foreground


Pink Granite and Horseshoe Valley, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado



Sprague Lake and Spring Clouds, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorad0



7836, Green Grass and Shafts of Light, Yosemite National Park, CA




7245, Sharks Nose and Grasses, Wind River Mountains in Wyoming



Donald Lake, Logs and Wildflowers, Wind River Mountains in Wyoming



7857, Dallas Divide and Rail Fence



9248, Dark Pines and Blue Mountains, Glacier National Park, Montana




10323, Snow and Pinyon Snag in Grand Canyon, Sunset.