One of the best ways to improve one's photographic work is to view the work of others. In carrying out this exercise, astute photographers will likely notice a number of factors that, when skillfully utilized, contribute to the success of memorable images. Those same factors, when utilized less skillfully, actually detract from images. One of these factors is the use of foregrounds. In successful images, the foregrounds are an integral part of the images. In each successful image, the foreground serves a specific purpose (this purpose varies from image to image). It is as if the foreground was designed into the image. In less successful images, it often appears that the foregrounds were an afterthought or are there only because they were between the photographers and their subjects.
When considering the role that foregrounds play in an image, it is necessary to go back to a very important concept in photography: all great photography is about communicating an emotion. The corollary to that statement is that all parts of an image should contribute to the emotion. If something doesn't play a role in the emotion, it should be removed from the image. This applies to foregrounds. That said, when used properly, foregrounds can play a powerful role in adding to the emotion that an image communicates. However, used improperly, foregrounds can easily end up being nothing more than distracting clutter.
Since foregrounds can be such a powerful part of an image, it is important to be aware of how foregrounds can enhance images. In this light, this article will look at a few ways that foregrounds can be used to add impact to an image.
One of the most common uses of foregrounds is to add depth to an image. This is achieved by showing a foreground that is very close to the lens while the background stretches into the distance. Figure 1 shows an example of a foreground used in this manner. An interesting thing about this foreground is that it doesn't have any significant objects of interest in it. Rather, the foreground is just a simple, flooded salt plain. The purpose of this foreground is not to draw attention to itself but to lend a sense of scale to the image. One clearly gets a sense that this salt plain stretches over a significant distance.
This use of foregrounds to add depth works particularly well with wide angle lenses. Wide angle lenses tend to make near objects appear larger and distant objects appear smaller. This stretches out distances -- which adds to the perception of depth.
Another common use of foregrounds is to enhance the center of interest by showing how it fits into its environment. Figure 2 shows a foreground used in this way. When viewing the actual waterfall, one is struck by its stunning beauty. However, it isn't just the beauty of the falls that is so breathtaking. It is how the waterfall is set in a shimmering environment of ultra lush moss and grass. It was imperative that part of this environment be included in the image to impart that beauty. One way to achieve this was through the use of the foreground.
When utilizing the foreground to set the center of interest in its environment, one thing must be kept in mind: the foreground should not be overpowering. In other words, the foreground should not draw too much attention to itself. It should support the center of interest, not compete with it. This was a concern with this waterfall image. In the first shot that was taken, the stump in the foreground was too large; this diminished the impact of the waterfall. Consequently, the image was recomposed to reduce the size of the stump in relation to the waterfall. Once this was done, the old stump assumed it supporting role as required.
One of the most powerful uses of foreground is to set the mood of an image. There are so many ways to utilize the foreground to establish mood that it is impossible to give a comprehensive list of all the possibilities. However, a few examples are:
Figure 3 shows an image that uses the first three of the listed methods to create a mood in the image. The use of the weather, as captured in the cloud reflections in the foreground, is the primary technique used to impart mood to the image. However, the foreground also uses contrast and dark tones to further the feel of foreboding weather. An interesting point about this image is how large a part the foreground plays. Not only does the foreground cover a large portion of the image, it is also one of the two most dominant parts of the image (the other being the illuminated rock mass). Without the foreground, this image would lose most of its impact.
This is one of my favorite techniques (I have to admit that I am a bit of a sucker for leading lines or curves in an image). By themselves, curves can add impact to an image. For instance, smooth curves can add grace to an image, and jagged curves can add a feeling of tension. However, it is when curves are utilized with some other object (often the center of interest) in an image that curves reach their full potential. In this use of the foreground, curves in the foreground of an image are used to lead the viewer's attention to another object in the image. This is a very powerful technique.
Figure 4 illustrates the use of curves to lead the viewer's attention. The scene of this waterfall was very interesting. The water tumbling down the stairstep falls was eye catching. In creating the image, the use of curves added impact to the photo. The fallen log in the lower right corner of the image points the viewer's eye directly to the main part of the falls. The branches next to the log direct the viewer's eye toward the base of the stream of water on the left side of the image.
One thing to keep in mind when using foreground curves to enhance an image is that each curve must have a specific purpose. That purpose must somehow strengthen the image in some way. Otherwise, the curves may actually weaken the image.
The use of foreground to inject contrast into an image can be a powerful technique for photographers. The important point here is that the eye is drawn to contrast. Thus, when used in this manner, the foreground is going to drawn the attention of the viewer. Depending on how the foreground is used, this can be either a good or a bad thing. If the foreground is utilized to somehow strengthen an image, or another object in the image (most likely the center of interest), this can add significant impact to an image. Otherwise, the foreground will serve only to distract the viewer's attention from the center of interest and detract from the image.
Figure 5 shows an image where the foreground was used to add contrast to an image. In this image, the foreground consists of sand dunes that sit below the desert mountains in an early morning moonset. These dunes add contrast in three ways:
The center of interest in this image is the moon setting atop the farthest mountain ridge. Used improperly, the dunes could have easily distracted from that center of interest. However, the strong curved line in the farthest dune points directly at the setting moon. This leads the viewer's eye to the moon -- strengthening the center of interest rather that detracting from it.
One other thing that this image illustrates is that a foreground can be used in more than one way in a single image: in this case, adding contrast and leading the eye.
A foreground can be used to create a more dynamic feel in an image. There are so many ways that this can be done that it is impossible to list them all. In fact, the ways in which a foreground can be used to add a dynamic touch to images is only limited by our imagination.
Figure 6 shows one image that relies on the foreground to add a dynamic touch. In this scene, the late-afternoon sunlight falling on the reddish soil of the desert contrasted beautifully with the blue of the sky. By itself, this would have made a good image. However, the addition of the foreground mountains added strong diagonal and vertical lines, a contrast in texture, a contrast in tone, and the dark trees on the right that jut upward into the blue sky. This added impact to the image and made the addition of the foreground worthwhile.
If a foreground does not contribute to an image, it detracts from it. Figure 7 is a case in point. The area in front of this waterfall consisted of a small lake. Some experimentation with the composition showed that including the lake as foreground in the image only resulted in a dark, featureless mass of water that contributed nothing to the image. In addition, including the lake in the foreground required a wider angle shot. This caused the waterfall to recede into the distance -- diminishing the size and impact of the waterfall. Consequently, it was decided that the foreground would be eliminated from the image. In this case, the elimination of the foreground strengthened the image.
It is, obviously, impossible to cover all of the uses of foregrounds in an article. Rather, these are just a few of my favorite uses. Other photographers have many other powerful uses of foregrounds. However, in whatever way a photographer chooses to use foregrounds, the important rule remains the same -- the foreground must in some way add to the emotion that the image is to convey. Otherwise, the foreground serves only as distracting clutter and should be eliminated.