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Using the Foreground to Improve Your Photography Composition

By definition foreground means: - “The part of a scene or picture that is nearest to and in front of the viewer”.

foreground in photography
Photo by: Evan Leeson

Quiet often we hear about photographers being told to pay attention to what is in the background of their shots. But another equally important element, the foreground is often ignored. In reality what constitutes the foreground is equally important to making a successful photograph as what constitutes its background.

The Importance of foreground in Photography Composition

Learning composition foreground
Photo by: Daniel Peckham

When used wisely a good foreground could add interest to a picture, could be used to lead the eye of the viewer directly to the main subject, to add depth, emotion, mood, contrast, and can also be used to show environment which adds context to the image. This is one powerful element that could transform otherwise ordinary scenes into dynamic eye capturing images. But to achieve all this, the photographer should have a strong understanding of the concept and know how to apply it in real life situations. Because being such a powerful element it could also deteriorate a shot if used wrongly. In this article about photography composition we will discuss how best to use foreground to improve our photography.

Using the Foreground to Improve Your Photography Composition

Before getting started with how best to capture the foreground in your pictures we should be clear about one thing. A bit of foreground should only be included in a picture if it actually contributes to making it a better photograph. If foreground does not add to the aesthetic or emotional value of a photograph it is nothing more than a distracting clutter and should be avoided at all costs.

Composing pictures with foreground interest
Photo by: Daniel Peckham

It is easy to determine whether a foreground is actually contributing to a shot or is taking away from it just by looking at the picture. In situations where the foreground adds to the visual or emotional appeal, it looks like as if the foreground is built into the picture or is an integral part of the image. And in situations where the foreground is actually ruining the shot, it will look as if the foregrounds were an afterthought or that they are in the frame because it was in between the photographer and the subject and could not be avoided.

Adding Depth to Photographs

The Importance of Foreground
Photo by: Arturo Donate

A feeling of depth adds the third dimension to the otherwise two dimensional photograph. One of the most common uses of foregrounds is to add depth to an image. The trick is to use a wide angle lens and use its perspective distortion (wide angle lenses make objects that are closer appear larger and make objects in the distance appear smaller) to stretch out distances adding the perception of depth.  The lens due to its perspective distortion emphasizes the foreground which is closer to the lens and makes the background elements which are at a distance appear smaller thus adding to the perception of depth.

Using Foreground to Lead the Eye to the Main Subject

Foreground elements could be effectively used to lead the eye of the viewer directly to the main center of interest in a photograph. Though jagged lines and smooth curves can add tension and grace to an image or even make up the image entirely of them; their true potential is only revealed when they are used with some other object which acts as the center of interest. Using lines and curves to lead the eye of the viewer to what’s important in a picture is a very powerful technique successfully used by many professional photographers.

How to Get Foregrounds Right in Photography
Photo by: Dennis' Photography

However when using such curves in the foreground to enhance a composition make sure the curves you choose to include all have some specific purpose that somehow strengthen your image else they will only serve to weaken your composition by taking away the viewers’ attention from the main subject matter.

Using Foreground to Put the Subject in Context

definition of foreground
Photo by: Steven Bratman

A significant role performed by foregrounds in many successful images is to enhance the main subject by revealing to the viewer how the subject fits into its environment. With this technique it’s all about balance; a fine balance between the foreground and the rest of the scene is to be achieved so that the foreground does not draw too much attention to itself. While composing your fame, make sure you only include foreground that is necessary to support the subject and not more. Foreground should not overpower the main subject or compete with it for the viewers’ attention.

Using Foreground to Create Mood and Add a Dynamic Feel

Basic Photography Techniques
Photo by: Garry

One very powerful use of foreground is to create mood and give a dynamic feel to an image. Depending on the characteristics of the foreground element like weather, contrast, tone, color etc and by use of techniques like selective focus a creative photographer could effectively convey many moods like somber, dramatic, romantic etc. the trick is to find an interesting foreground that will work well with the main subject of the shot and its background to produce the desired feel.

Using Foreground to Add Contrast

Photo by: Dave Ellis

Human eyes are naturally drawn to the area of maximum contrast. Foreground could be effectively used to add contrast to an image but this is one technique that is to be used carefully. Sometimes foregrounds that attract the viewers’ attention could be a good thing but on certain occasions it could work against the image. But whenever the technique works it adds significant impact to the images. So it is worth a try.

Tips for Maximizing the Impact of Foregrounds

1. Pay Attention to Your Foreground Elements

photography composition rules
Photo by: Gemma Stiles

When you come across a scene that you wish to photograph, move around and look for interesting foreground elements that could work with your subject. Once you decide on the composition, closely look for distracting elements in the foreground and remove them. In photography great foregrounds do not happen by accident you need to go looking for them and make them happen.

2. Shoot from A Low Angle

photography composition tricks
Photo by: Linda Tanner

One trick to emphasize the foreground is to shoot from a lower angle. Lower your tripod and you will see that you have an entirely different perspective of the scene before you that you don’t usually get to see standing up. This is one single technique that could dramatically change how your pictures look and feel.

3. Place the Horizon Higher Up in Your Images

photography composition ideas
Photo by: Ævar Guðmundsson

The position of the horizon line in your image impacts how the foreground influences your picture. Most amateurs place the horizon line in the middle of the frame; this could work well when trying to include reflections etc in your composition. But many times you get better results by placing the horizon line along one of the horizontal rule of thirds lines. Placing the horizon on the lower thirds line will emphasize the sky (read background) and placing the horizon on the upper thirds line will emphasize the foreground.

4. Use Large Depth of Field

photography composition techniques
Photoby: Jim

On most occasions a blurred background works well, but that is not the case with foregrounds. Soft foreground elements are visually annoying, when the part of the picture that is closest to the camera lacks details it keeps attracting our attention to it and the picture as a whole feels blurry. So if you choose to include foreground elements in your shot make sure you have them either tack sharp or so out of focus that they just appear as a blur of color. The trick to achieve this is to use a narrow aperture to get large depth of field that will render both near and far elements in your frame acceptably sharp.

5. Use Hyperfocal Focusing

using foreground in photography
Photo by: Jim Nix

This point is in continuation of the previous point; one other trick to maximize depth of field is to focus your lens on its hyper focal distance. Thus anything from half the focused distance to infinity is sharp in the photo. A general rule of thumb is to focus on any point which is roughly one third into the scene. 

Do give these techniques a try and see for yourselves the difference it makes in your photography composition. Don’t forget to share some of your best shots taken with this technique in our forums or in comments below.

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