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Include The Foreground For Dramatic Landscapes

When I came upon this small cascade, I felt it would make a nice image. I began working up close and felt like something was missing. Then I walked further downstream and found these interesting rock formations. Camera was Canon EOS 5D Mark III, with EF 17-40mm f/4L. Exposure was 2.5 sec., f/18, ISO 100.

When photographing landscapes, it’s very easy to get lost in the grandiosity of the overall view, and sometimes , lose sight of what could be a better image.  Many times, I’ve been taken in by a grand expanse that was simply beautiful to look at, but was unable to translate that beauty into a compelling image. In the past few years, one of my favorite landscape techniques is to use an ultra wide angle lens to emphasize the foreground and use that beautiful expanse as background for an image.

I was never what one would call a true “wide angle shooter”, but as I began exploring landscape photography more and more, I fell in love with lenses such as the 16-35mm f/2.8, the 14mm f/2.8, and the 8-15mm Fisheye Zoom. These lenses have become my go-to lenses when shooting landscape images.  They allow me to capture wide expanses, while emphasizing elements of the composition immediately in front of me.

The dune grass created a lot of foreground interest for me, with a nice texture that pointed towards the lighthouse. A low shooting angle ensured I'd be able to include that dramatic sky as well. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, with EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye Zoom. Exposure 1/60, f/16, ISO 100. The perspective was then corrected in Photoshop.

The first thing to realize when shooting with these lenses is that you have to be close to that foreground element. It needs to be prominent and stand out. Being able to spot those elements that will do that for your image is a skill that requires some practice to perfect.  It took me some time to learn to “see” like a wide angle lens would.  But now I constantly pick out elements and frame my image around that element being right in front of the camera, rather than looking at the bigger picture first and accidentally getting a nice foreground.

It’s important to take into account point of view when placing your foreground in the scene.  Too often I see photographers extending their tripod legs to the height that would be best for them standing at their full height.  The problem with this is that this is the height at which most people look at things, so for the most part the point of view in the scene won’t be too different from everyone else’s point of view.  I prefer to be able to get low when possible, and really get close to the foreground.  It’s a point of view most people don’t bother to get to, and it also makes the chosen foreground element that much more prominent in the scene. By being low, there’s also the added benefit that if the sky is dramatic, you can angle the camera up just a bit to include more of the sky.

These rocks made a beautiful foreground to place against the warm tones created by the sunset. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 14mm f/2.8L II. Exposure was 2.5 sec., f/11, ISO 100.

Once you have that foreground element in place, you want to be sure it’s in focus.  But more than that, you want to be sure EVERYTHING that you want to be sharp, IS sharp. To do this, you’ll have to figure hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal distance is defined as  the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. When the lens is focused at this distance, all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp.  There are two ways to figure this out.  The first way is to do some math.  Math makes my head hurt, so I do it the easy way and use a depth of field calculator on my smart phone.  There are several out there, so I’d suggest trying some of the free ones first before spending money on the paid apps.  Once you tell the app what camera you are using (sensor size), focal length, and f-stop, as well as the distance to the foreground element you want in focus, the calculator will tell you what the hyperfocal distance is- the distance you should focus your lens to, as well as the near limit- or how far the nearest area of sharp focus is from the camera. Everything beyond that point should also be acceptably sharp all the way to infinity.

Of course, the foreground does not always lend itself to being included in our compositions.  These are choices we as photographers must make for every image we take.  As I said, it can be very easy to be sucked in by a beautiful vista.  But it’s just as easy to be turned off when the vista is only so-so. By looking at all areas of the scene, the foreground, as well as the middle ground and background, more options open up to your camera, and of course, more photos.

Fog and mist at sunrise obliterated the grander vista I had intended to shoot this morning. The lighthouse was shrouded in fog, but as the sun came up it created this beautifully soft light. A long exposure using a variable ND filter allowed me to give a misty effect to the water. The wet rocks glistening in the soft light gave the foreground added interest. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 17-40mm f/4L. Exposure: 20 sec., f/11, ISO 800.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • satesh

    Great article. Here is one of mine from a few weeks ago.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/76309550@N06/8408974531/

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    I also read that including the foreground provides some idea about the scale. Lovely pictures all around!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2013/01/to-trek-or-not-to-trek-in-nepal-again-is-the-question.html

  • http://www.ptjphotography.co.uk Peter

    This has been a very useful article to read! I totally agree, and am only learning it recently that foreground adds so much to landscape shots! I especially love the seascape LE shots with wet stones in the foreground!

    Another great point I picked up and again it is confirming what I have also been learning is, the low perspective adds greatly! Successful photographers make images that the ordinary person on the street falls in love with, the low perspective gives the different point of view to what we as humans are used to and draws us in to view!!

  • Scottc

    Great article and great photos, it took me some time to learn the importance of foreground in landscapes.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5577283782/

  • http://zain.zenfolio.com Zain Abdullah

    Thanks for the enlightening article and for sharing awesome pictures.

    I have also tried to include foreground in almost all of my landscape shots….here are are a few examples.

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/beaches/e53540c08

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/waterfall/ee355595

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/beaches/e1ca91c52

  • http://www.joe-elliott.co.uk Joe Elliott

    Amazing photos here, will defo try the tips. Sometimes I see an amzing landscape but when take the image im not as impressed. Thanks :)

  • http://www.photocandy.com.au/photoblog stephen hill

    Great advice!
    I always try and have a foreground interest in my landscapes which allows for more of a story telling composition as it leads the viewer through the picture and add’s scale to the scene. Even having some of the foreground blurred can add to the scene and give that dreamy quality to an image.

  • James

    I enjoyed reading this article. You have some great advice. I don’t have the patience for math, so I usually focus about a third of the way into the scene and use a small aperture, like f/18. I find that my landscapes are sharp from front to back with this technique.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/67156480@N08 Mike

    Thanks Rick – great article and images. As someone fairly new to photography one thing that I never see explained too well is how you actually focus on the hyperfocal distance in an outdoor location! I do have an app and it comes up with any range of numbers 93cm, 116cm – they all subtly vary in quite fine degrees. The lens has numbers but not in increments that are fine enough to deal with the sort of distance the app suggests. Do I need to take a tape measure?! Or do I adjust lens / aperture to get the HD right for the thing in the foreground? I will check out the related features above! Thanks

  • LeAnne

    One of my favorites from my recent vacation had this element. http://www.flickr.com/photos/leanne8790/8418073654/

  • Naz

    you shooting these in hdr?

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    @naz- Only the black and white lighthouse image was HDR.

  • http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro marius2die4

    Good article and good pics.Some of mine:
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2012/06/peisaje.html

  • Cathy

    This is a great article and photos are striking. Just received a wide angle lens for Christmas and have not had good results. Will definitely try this technique. Thanks

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/snowboarder2k/8412031699/ Todd

    Great article Rick!
    I’ve just started back shooting after at least 20 years and bought a Pentax K-30
    and found a 10-17mm fisheye to ultra wide angle lens to be a lot of fun.
    I plan to employ many of your guidelines from the article!
    Thanks for sharing your pro experience with us.
    Todd

  • http://bobsegalphotography.weebly.com/index.html Bob Segal

    Hyperfocal works great with wide angle lenses. However, at longer focal lengths you’ve got a problem. One solution is to take multiple shots at different focus points and then use “focus stacking” in Photoshop. Works like a charm.

  • http://www.valeriehayken.com Valerie Hayken

    Great article and great photos!

    Another example of the importance of foreground: http://valeriehayken.com/photo-blog/photo-tips/add-depth-to-your-photography/

  • http://merlepetersphotography.com Merle Peters

    Thanks for the insight. Very helpful. I’m tall and often forget to get down low for a different look.

  • http://merlepetersphotography.com Merle Peters

    By the way, which app did you wind up choosing for your hyper focal calculations?

  • http://www.yourperfectmoment.co.uk Keith McMahon

    I love the lighthouse image. Great processing

  • Ken Duquaine

    A nice article and wonderful examples! Just a point of clarification: “Once you tell the app what camera you are using (sensor size), focal length, and f-stop, as well as the distance to the foreground element you want in focus, the calculator will tell you what the hyperfocal distance is- the distance you should focus your lens to, as well as the near limit- or how far the nearest area of sharp focus is from the camera. Everything beyond that point should also be acceptably sharp all the way to infinity.”

    Did you mean to say “distance to subject” as opposed to “distance to the foreground element you want in focus”?

    The apps I’ve found appear to ask for the distance to subject.

    Really enjoyed the photos.

  • Phil Burmeister

    Great articale! When ever I’m out with my wife she always has to stand over my so others do not trip over me, drives my wife nuts,because I take so much time. It is worth it. I love to get down low for foreground. A lot of the time whe others se me and get low to see as I do they copy what I shot as close as they can.

  • trevor campbell

    Thanks to Rick & Digital photography School for these great tips and a world off information all i have to do now is go out and try them and today looks good as the sun is out and frost on ground here in n.ireland,

  • pat

    this is a fantastic article. Can I do any of this with my canon t2i camera/ ? I have 18-55 lense for my wide angle. 100 macro lense and 75-300 lense

  • http://500px.com/yoan_mitov/ Yoan

    What was the point of increasing the ISO in the last shot to 800?

  • Rick Berk

    It’s been a while since I shot that, so I don’t remember exactly. Most likely I didn’t want to have the shutter open too long to create a more misty look to the water. I may also have been hedging my bets that a wave wouldn’t come and engulf the camera since I was shooting close to ground level.

  • http://harjeevchadha.wordpress.com/ Harjeev S Chadha

    Great Article Rick.
    I’m already using a DOF Calculator on my android phone and lets suppose I key in everything, like Canera, Lens, Focal Length, Aperture, etc. Now the app tells me that the Hyper Focal Distance(HFD) is 10 feet.
    What I would like to know is that how do I focus on this 10 feet subject if I’m shooting landscapes when the lens doesn’t have the distance scale like found in more expensive lenses.
    Should I simply point the camera on the ground set the focus at approx 10 feet from where I’m standing (I use back button focusing), recompose and take the shot. Or there’s some other technique?
    Please advise.

  • Terry Koerner

    Take the picture even if you think it won’t turn out. —- Some of my best shots were things that I shot on the spur of a moment

  • riley.a

    “When photographing landscapes, it’s very easy to get lost in the grandiosity of the overall view, and sometimes , lose sight of what could be a better image” I am trying to figure out why this is a problem. People, I have been an avid hobbyist for years, take my word for it, enjoy the beauty without letting your camera get in the way of the beauty, and grandeur of this awesome world. After you soak it all in, then turn your photographer brain on.

Some older comments

  • trevor campbell

    February 24, 2013 08:52 pm

    Thanks to Rick & Digital photography School for these great tips and a world off information all i have to do now is go out and try them and today looks good as the sun is out and frost on ground here in n.ireland,

  • Phil Burmeister

    February 7, 2013 05:58 am

    Great articale! When ever I'm out with my wife she always has to stand over my so others do not trip over me, drives my wife nuts,because I take so much time. It is worth it. I love to get down low for foreground. A lot of the time whe others se me and get low to see as I do they copy what I shot as close as they can.

  • Ken Duquaine

    February 5, 2013 04:07 am

    A nice article and wonderful examples! Just a point of clarification: "Once you tell the app what camera you are using (sensor size), focal length, and f-stop, as well as the distance to the foreground element you want in focus, the calculator will tell you what the hyperfocal distance is- the distance you should focus your lens to, as well as the near limit- or how far the nearest area of sharp focus is from the camera. Everything beyond that point should also be acceptably sharp all the way to infinity."

    Did you mean to say "distance to subject" as opposed to "distance to the foreground element you want in focus"?

    The apps I've found appear to ask for the distance to subject.

    Really enjoyed the photos.

  • Keith McMahon

    February 2, 2013 08:38 am

    I love the lighthouse image. Great processing

  • Merle Peters

    February 1, 2013 11:40 am

    By the way, which app did you wind up choosing for your hyper focal calculations?

  • Merle Peters

    February 1, 2013 11:27 am

    Thanks for the insight. Very helpful. I'm tall and often forget to get down low for a different look.

  • Valerie Hayken

    February 1, 2013 10:07 am

    Great article and great photos!

    Another example of the importance of foreground: http://valeriehayken.com/photo-blog/photo-tips/add-depth-to-your-photography/

  • Bob Segal

    February 1, 2013 08:11 am

    Hyperfocal works great with wide angle lenses. However, at longer focal lengths you've got a problem. One solution is to take multiple shots at different focus points and then use "focus stacking" in Photoshop. Works like a charm.

  • Todd

    February 1, 2013 07:54 am

    Great article Rick!
    I've just started back shooting after at least 20 years and bought a Pentax K-30
    and found a 10-17mm fisheye to ultra wide angle lens to be a lot of fun.
    I plan to employ many of your guidelines from the article!
    Thanks for sharing your pro experience with us.
    Todd

  • Cathy

    February 1, 2013 07:32 am

    This is a great article and photos are striking. Just received a wide angle lens for Christmas and have not had good results. Will definitely try this technique. Thanks

  • marius2die4

    February 1, 2013 07:27 am

    Good article and good pics.Some of mine:
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2012/06/peisaje.html

  • Rick Berk

    February 1, 2013 05:16 am

    @naz- Only the black and white lighthouse image was HDR.

  • Naz

    February 1, 2013 04:42 am

    you shooting these in hdr?

  • LeAnne

    February 1, 2013 04:36 am

    One of my favorites from my recent vacation had this element. http://www.flickr.com/photos/leanne8790/8418073654/

  • Mike

    February 1, 2013 03:56 am

    Thanks Rick - great article and images. As someone fairly new to photography one thing that I never see explained too well is how you actually focus on the hyperfocal distance in an outdoor location! I do have an app and it comes up with any range of numbers 93cm, 116cm - they all subtly vary in quite fine degrees. The lens has numbers but not in increments that are fine enough to deal with the sort of distance the app suggests. Do I need to take a tape measure?! Or do I adjust lens / aperture to get the HD right for the thing in the foreground? I will check out the related features above! Thanks

  • James

    February 1, 2013 03:17 am

    I enjoyed reading this article. You have some great advice. I don't have the patience for math, so I usually focus about a third of the way into the scene and use a small aperture, like f/18. I find that my landscapes are sharp from front to back with this technique.

  • stephen hill

    January 31, 2013 03:24 pm

    Great advice!
    I always try and have a foreground interest in my landscapes which allows for more of a story telling composition as it leads the viewer through the picture and add's scale to the scene. Even having some of the foreground blurred can add to the scene and give that dreamy quality to an image.

  • Joe Elliott

    January 30, 2013 07:45 pm

    Amazing photos here, will defo try the tips. Sometimes I see an amzing landscape but when take the image im not as impressed. Thanks :)

  • Zain Abdullah

    January 30, 2013 06:31 pm

    Thanks for the enlightening article and for sharing awesome pictures.

    I have also tried to include foreground in almost all of my landscape shots....here are are a few examples.

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/beaches/e53540c08

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/waterfall/ee355595

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/beaches/e1ca91c52

  • Scottc

    January 30, 2013 10:37 am

    Great article and great photos, it took me some time to learn the importance of foreground in landscapes.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5577283782/

  • Peter

    January 30, 2013 06:52 am

    This has been a very useful article to read! I totally agree, and am only learning it recently that foreground adds so much to landscape shots! I especially love the seascape LE shots with wet stones in the foreground!

    Another great point I picked up and again it is confirming what I have also been learning is, the low perspective adds greatly! Successful photographers make images that the ordinary person on the street falls in love with, the low perspective gives the different point of view to what we as humans are used to and draws us in to view!!

  • Mridula

    January 30, 2013 03:01 am

    I also read that including the foreground provides some idea about the scale. Lovely pictures all around!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2013/01/to-trek-or-not-to-trek-in-nepal-again-is-the-question.html

  • satesh

    January 30, 2013 02:25 am

    Great article. Here is one of mine from a few weeks ago.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/76309550@N06/8408974531/

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