Incorporating a Foreground Element

Incorporating a foreground element in our compositions is an important way to add a feeling of depth to our landscape images. This approach, combined with our choice of focal length and aperture can help create deep depth-of-field.

Since more people are resuming travel that was interrupted by a couple of years of COVID-19 lockdowns, we thought a quick review of some landscape photography fundamentals may be helpful.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Paihia, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-160

Our first example uses a shoreline scene captured in Paihia, New Zealand. You can see how a partial reveal is created by using the red flowering shrub on the left hand side as a foreground element. This serves to anchor the left side of the image and force the viewer’s eye to the right.

The foliage that extends out in centre frame serves the opposite function in terms of directing a viewer’s eye to the left. The result is a subtle leading line created by the water in the composition.

You’ll also notice that deep depth-of-field was created even though the aperture used was only f/5.6. The short focal length of 6.7 mm provides much deeper depth-of-field than is possible if longer focal lengths would have been used. A shorter focal length will always provide more depth-of-field than a longer focal length when the same aperture and focusing distance is used.

As noted in a previous article, the equivalent-field-of-view (efov) of 18 mm does not affect depth-of-field. A 6.7 mm focal length lens has its own unique optical properties regardless of the sensor in a camera.

Lindis Valley, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-160

Sometimes we may find ourselves in a situation where incorporating a foreground element can be a challenge. This was the case during a stop in the Lindis Valley.

Since there was no obvious foreground element that could be placed in the composition to help create a feeling of depth, I used the back of another tourist. If you use your thumb to cover up the tourist placed in the left-hand corner of the composition you’ll quickly see how this foreground element serves as a corner anchor.

I used my zoom lens at is widest focal length (i.e. 10 mm) to maximize available depth-of-field. Since I had plenty of light I shot at f/8 which also contributed to the deep depth-of-field in the image.

Castle Point, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 12.1 mm, efov 32.7 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

Our next example uses the lighthouse at Castle Point as a foreground element as well as framing it using equidistant composition technique. This helps create a sense of balance in the composition. The intersection of vertical and horizontal lines in the photograph help to create a 3-D effect. This also serves to add a feeling of depth.

You’ll also notice how the rock ridge line serves as a corner exit in the bottom right of the image. This composition technique helps to direct eye flow from right to left, thus making the lighthouse the ‘hero’ of the composition.

Kaikoura, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 22 mm, efov 59.4 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-160

Our next example was captured along the Kaikoura shoreline. You can see how the remains of a stone structure serves as an effective foreground element to anchor that side of the image. The right to left upward angle of the hearth leads to a rocky outcrop which then directs a viewer’s eye out to the mountains positioned in the upper left of the composition.

I wanted to create more compression with this composition to pull the mountains in the background closer visually, so a longer focal length of 22 mm was utilized. An aperture of f/8 was sufficient to create deep depth-of-field at that particular focal length.

Tairua, New Zealand, Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 10-30 mm f/3.5-5.6 PD @ 19 mm, efov 51.3 mm, f/5.6, 1/160, ISO-160

Our travels may take us to expansive beach areas which can make incorporating a foreground element more challenging. Resulting images can run the risk of appearing rather flat and lack visual interest.

The photograph above was captured along the beach in Tairua, New Zealand. You can see how a incorporating some foliage in the foreground of a composition can help create a feeling of depth, as well as provide some visual interest.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-160

In a similar fashion, a lone tree can be positioned in a corner to help add a feeling of depth. As we can see with the photograph above, captured in Monument Valley, if a tree cuts over opposing visual lines it can add a 3-D effect.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm @ 9.3 mm, efov 25 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

Lowering our shooting angle as well as incorporating a foreground element can help increase the feeling of ‘being there’ for a viewer.

Gemstone Beach, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/160, ISO-160

Using a wide angle focal length when incorporating some foreground elements can often allow us to get in very close to those elements. The resulting photograph can then provide some interesting details of those foreground elements. Incorporating the intersection of overlapping visual lines can serve to increase a feeling of depth as the horizon is pushed away visually.

Cahore Point, Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-160

A strong, bold foreground element can send a clear message about the nature of a location… for example a seaside vantage point. Finding this kind of overlapping, visual element to feature in a photograph can be important when the surrounding topography is flat and somewhat featureless.

Deirbhile’s Twist, Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

Positioning a foreground element can often create a bold corner anchor as well as serve as the lead-in element for a strong leading line.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

A foreground element doesn’t need to be large and dominating to have a strong visual effect. For example, I incorporated the walking shoes left on some higher ground on this deserted beach in New Zealand to accentuate the remote nature of the location.

The red details on the shoes provide a small splash of colour that attracts a viewer’s eye and helps to create an anchor point for the corner. This, in turn, helps increase a feeling of depth. To illustrate this, use your finger to hide the walking shoes and see how the context of the photograph immediately changes. Note how equidistant composition technique was used to position the walking shoes in the composition.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 17 mm, efov 46 mm, f/8, 1/1250, ISO-400

In summary, incorporating a foreground element in our compositions can add context to our images. They can also increase feelings of depth and enhance leading lines to draw viewers into our compositions. Including foreground elements, along with our choice of focal length and aperture can have a huge impact on our compositions. Specifically looking for ways to incorporate a foreground element into a landscape image can increase its visual appeal.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard approach in post.  Images were resized for web use. This is the 1,180 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/640, ISO-400

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