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Include The Foreground For Dramatic Landscapes

Image: When I came upon this small cascade, I felt it would make a nice image. I began working up cl...

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.

Image: The dune grass created a lot of foreground interest for me, with a nice texture that pointed...

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.

Image: These rocks made a beautiful foreground to place against the warm tones created by the sunset...

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.

Image: Fog and mist at sunrise obliterated the grander vista I had intended to shoot this morning. T...

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
Rick Berk

is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

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