Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

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Have you ever been travelling, come upon a breathtaking vista, and taken a photograph only to find your representation to be a poor record of the view you remember? Welcome to the wonderful world of landscape photography! Capturing that breathtaking view in a photograph is not quite as easy as it looks.

Luckily, with a few simple strategies, you can significantly improve chances of getting better images. Read on and follow these tips for using layers and foreground to take your photos to the next level.

Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

Do your images capture what you saw?

As is the case with any type of photography, great subjects (people or places) always help make better photographs. However, just because a vista is spectacular or the light is gorgeous does not guarantee that your photographs will turn out that way.

Why? What is going on?

The problem

Basically, the problem lies in creating composition from the vistas as they are presented. Many tourist views are interesting because of scale or the unusual nature of the location. To make a good image you need to create interest and capture that sense of scale. As you travel through scenic areas around the world, those locations that are the easiest to access don’t necessarily make the best landscape photographs. Being high or adjacent to the road may create a great viewpoint but it often doesn’t lend itself to a great two-dimensional representation (photography) of a three-dimensional object (the world and the view in front of you).

Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

Going one step further, many beginners will look at landscape images from other photographers and instinctively like some and not others. They will often have difficulty articulating why they prefer one image over another. Understanding composition and layering will help you make more interesting images and get a better appreciation of why you enjoy certain landscape photographs.

The solutions

The best way to understand these concepts is to break your image down into a few simple pieces when approaching a scene you want to photograph, and then put them all together in the final photograph. Let’s start with scene scouting and composition before you worry about your camera settings.

Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

Choose your subject

As part of your location scouting, before you set up to take an image, take some time to think about what you are looking at before you are ready take your camera out of the bag. Decide on the subject matter you are interested in making into a photograph. Figure out what part of it you found interesting – it could be something close, like a lake, or something far away, like a mountain.

Shoot when the light is best

Next, try to make sure you are taking the image when the sun is low in the sky. This is not always an option when you are travelling and it is raining or you only have time during the middle of the day. The wrong time of day (i.e. midday) will significantly limit the impact of your photographs. It is almost always essential to shoot landscape images during golden hour (right after sunrise or just before sunset).

Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

The only exceptions are when the sky is overcast or if you are in the mountains. If the sky is overcast it will extend your shooting time but simultaneously makes getting good images harder because the sky is not interesting.

When you are in a mountain range, the mountains are often big enough to interfere with the lighting on your subject as shadows from mountains will get in the way. This means you have to shoot later in the day. In general, shooting during the golden hour will create interesting shadows and great quality of light.

Think in terms of layers

Once you have your subject selected and have picked an appropriate time of day, the next step is to think about layers. Add an object(s) of interest in front of your subject, and include it in the composition of your image. This will often mean using your feet to get into a better position.

Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

What is meant by layering composition or objects of interest?

Good landscape photos have layers or objects in the foreground (close to you), middle ground (medium distance from the camera), and background (farthest away). This will help prevent your images from looking flat. These layers form elements that draw the viewer’s eyes and create depth in your photo.

It’s even better if the foreground leads into the background (maybe a river or a line of trees). Some objects, like people, can create a sense of scale. This is particularly important when you are looking at large vistas. For example, a massive cliff will provide no sense of scale without someone or something of a recognizable size in the field of view.

Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

What makes a good foreground layer?

What kinds of things can you use to create these layered elements? For the background, distant mountains or hills can do the track. For the middle layer, look for tree lines, intermediate distance hills, clusters of objects, rivers, or lakes. If you have open water such as a lake in the foreground, lowering your perspective, may allow you to see a reflection of your subject that can create additional interest.

Finally, for the front layer, any isolated object in the foreground can function for this purpose. It could be a rock, a cluster of grass, or even a person. The object in the foreground creates weight and balances the image. These should all be placed in the field of view to divide up your image and create interest. You get extra credit for atmospheric effects like fog, mist or haze. Remember you can introduce a subject in the foreground, or get lower to the ground to make something small look bigger.

Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

Get ready to shoot

Okay, now that you have scouted your subject, planned your layers, and have positioned yourself you can grab your camera. Choose a lens that gives an appropriate field of view, remembering that really wide angle lenses don’t necessarily work for distant objects in landscapes because they tend to make them appear very small.

Compose your image well

With your camera and lens selection in hand, you need to compose the image in your frame. It is easiest to remember and implement the Rule of Thirds with layers at the thirds. Most modern cameras can be configured to have a grid with lines that divide the screen into nine squares (two horizontal lines and two vertical lines). Where these lines intersect is where you should put the objects(s) of interest, or the layers.

Using Layers and Foreground Interest for Better Landscape Photography

For example, placing the horizon on one of these lines is great. Having the sunrise positioned on one of the intersections of the lines is even better. If the sky is really interesting, put the horizon on the bottom third so the sky fills the top two thirds. If the ground is the most interesting, position the sky so that it is only the top third.

Remember you can also shoot landscapes in portrait orientation if that helps the composition. Some people don’t want to follow things like the rule of thirds, but until your photographs are regularly turning out as you want them, it is a good general approach.

Camera settings

In general, for each type of landscape there will be preferred camera settings that will make your photographs really pop. Don’t set your camera at its widest aperture for landscape photographs. You want to try to get as much of the subject of interest in focus. Using a smaller aperture will help, but don’t go too far or you will start introducing diffraction effects.

Use the hyperfocal distance of your aperture to your advantage and make sure you are focusing on an element in the middle ground. This will get all of your background in focus and much of your foreground too, especially if you are using a f-stop in the range of f/8 – f/11.

Finally, you should almost always use a tripod for landscape photography. This type of photography demands tack sharp images: achieve this by using a tripod.

Conclusion

Once you get used to this as an approach to your imagery, it will help you create better images and understand why you like some landscape images more than others.

Please share any additional tips you have for adding layers to your landscape photos in the comments below. Share your landscape images as well, we’d love to see them.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mark C Hughes is a photographer, writer, educator, and engineer that specializes in both portraits of people and pets but also creates stunning landscape and nature photography. He’s an accredited professional photographer (PPOC) and has won awards, including one from National Geographic. Mark has exhibited works and has testified as an expert witness in a trial as a photographer. He has taught photography for a variety of groups and skill sets.

  • This well written short post has helped me to understand some landscape photography basics without plowing through a lot of unnecessary verbiage becoming bored and not finishing. Thank you!

  • Mark Hughes

    Thanks Suzanne! I’m glad it resonated with you. I realized as I was writing the article that, while I understood the concept intellectually, as I was selecting examples I clearly sometimes forget this composition approach when I’m in the field.

  • John Miner

    You put into words things I’d been doing intuitively without knowing for years. Now I know why–thank you, Mark.

  • Mark Hughes

    Thanks John! Sometimes it seems like I am simply stating the obvious. I think putting into words a description of what many people seem to be able to do instinctively can help those people understand why they like doing thing they way they do (if that makes any sense).

  • John Miner

    your words remind of something pope wrote about wit. here it is in its entirety:
    “True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d
    What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d;
    Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
    That gives us back the image of our mind.
    As shades more sweetly recommend the light,
    So modest plainness sets off sprightly wit.”

    ? Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

  • Mark Hughes

    Thank you

  • Mark Miller

    Your foregrounds are extremely sharp. Did you use a tilt shift lense on any of these photos?

  • Mark Hughes

    Hi Mark, no I didn’t use a tilt shift lens. I don’t actually have one in my arsenal…. might be an idea

  • MickMJM

    Thank you for a really helpful article. It helped by providing a structured approach to composing a photograph. Regards. Michael.

  • Mark Hughes

    That’s great! The key is finding a way to incorporate it when you are out in the field staring at a beautiful vista

  • Gene Jenkins

    Than you for the most informative article. My wife and I both have fallen in love with Landscape-Layers-03.jpg. That photograph is stunning.

  • Mark Hughes

    Thanks so much Gene! That photo was taken during sunset in the winter at Lake Vermillion near Banff. Most people take photos in the opposite direction. The water is only open because there is a hot spring feeding water underneath. Temperatures were pretty cold at the time ~20C

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