The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
5. The Benefits of a Foreground
On the Search for the Third Dimension
There’s a German saying about photography that literally translates into “Foreground makes a picture sound.” It’s sort of a buzzword but fairly easy to remember, and there’s more than just a grain of truth to it. Anyone who’s seen a successful landscape photo has probably noticed that the photographer placed an emphasis on the foreground of his or her image. You would do well to do the same. Strive to find appropriate foregrounds for your images, even when you’re not into landscapes. Your pictures can only benefit from this effort, especially in terms of depth.
One of the fundamental challenges of photography is mapping the three-dimensionality of a subject onto the two-dimensional photographic representation. As photographers, it’s our task to master this challenge through thoughtful image composition. A sense of depth is needed to give a two-dimensional picture the look and feel of three-dimensional reality. Viewers automatically pick up on this when the composition includes visual clues to guide their perception. By working with clearly distinguishable layers positioned at different distances from the camera, photographers can provide viewers with information about the spatial relationships of the individual elements within a photo.
Flying in a small aircraft over the Gran Sabana, Venezuela. The wing serves as the foreground and the river invites the viewer’s gaze to follow it toward the table mountains in the background. | Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 1/400 s • f/10 • ISO 200
Antarctica without penguins? Unthinkable! But that’s not the only reason the top photo lacks depth, despite the fantastic scenery of Paradise Bay. The bottom picture clearly benefits from an added dimension created by including the rocks and the Gentoo penguin up front. | Nikon D700 • 60 mm • 1/1250 s • f/8 • ISO 200
Flying through the fog: Eider ducks cross Hamiltonbukta (Spitsbergen) above floating icebergs and a rubber dinghy. The birds in the foreground provide a third dimension. The image was created while sitting in another inflatable. | Nikon D300 • 300 mm • 1/800 s • f/9 • ISO 500
In landscape photos, photographers often create levels of depth by emphasizing or at least deliberately including the foreground. Landscape photos without a foreground usually come across as flat and boring; they lack depth. More abstract photos, on the other hand, generally do well without a pronounced third dimension. If graphical elements such as lines, shapes, colors, or textures are the focus of an image, spatial depth is less important.
Ideally, the relationship between the foreground and the background extends beyond the optical level on to the content level. In pictures of mountains, for example, this is often achieved by including stones in the still water of a lake that reflects the peak behind it. Other photos incorporate a sense of depth by including a person who’s traveling through a landscape in the foreground. Roads, paths, or marked lines that lead into the picture can also connect the foreground to the background and guide the viewer’s eye. Whether you choose flowers, driftwood, pebbles, a gnarled tree, a sheep, your feet, or a tidal creek in a mudflat to serve as your foreground – the possibilities are limited only by your imagination, and whatever works is fine.
Another way to arrange a photo into distinct dimensional layers is by applying sharpness and blur in a calculated way (even if the goal when creating classic landscape photos is usually to have the largest depth of field possible to render everything in focus, from the foreground to the background). In some cases, you may open up the aperture to intentionally introduce depth through blur. When portions of a photo are not in focus, the sense of depth is almost automatic. Whether you decide to obscure the background or the foreground depends on which element is more important to your picture. Often, one of the two options will appear more harmonious than the other.
Photographing royalty: The visitor to the King penguin colony on South Georgia adds depth, a sense of scale, and a splash of color to the picture. | Nikon D700 • 250 mm • 1/500 s • f/7.1 • ISO 400
Composing images is possible with all types of cameras: The top picture was produced by a compact camera while the bottom one was made with a DSLR. Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru. | Above: Nikon P7100 • 35 mm • 1/160 s • f/6.3 • ISO 100. Below: Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/100 s • f/8 • ISO 400 • polarizer
A foreground came floating by: Without the canoe, this view of Mahé, an island in the Seychelles, lacks depth. | Above: Nikon D70 • 38 mm • 1/320 s • f/9 • ISO 200 • polarizer. Below: Nikon D70 • 52 mm • 1/320 s • f/9 • ISO 200 • polarizer
The rocks as well as both climbers add depth to this picture from Jebel Rum, Jordan. | Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 250
Admittedly, the play with depth of field belongs to the domain of larger camera sensors. Users of compact digital cameras might find themselves to be technically limited in this regard, since a compact camera’s relatively tiny sensor in combination with its wide-angle optics tends to produce sharpness throughout the frame it captures, even with a nominally large aperture.
If it seems like I’ve been going on about landscape photography, then that’s because it’s a realm in which it’s particularly useful to explain concepts related to the benefits of including a foreground. But many more photos benefit from added depth when you spring for a third dimension. Give it a try!
Without the photographer in the foreground this would have been a fairly standard picture from the Libyan desert. | Nikon D700 • 48 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 200