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Foreground

Use the foreground to show scale, depth & more


The leaves in the foreground nicely frame this night picture, giving it depth and cohesion.
The leaves in the foreground nicely frame this night picture, giving it depth and cohesion.

Objects in the foreground can be made to work for you by providing a sense of scale or image depth, to frame the subject, and even to block out something you may not want in the image. They can also be used to lead the viewer’s eye towards the center of interest.

FOREGROUND OBJECTS TO SHOW SCALE

Include an object of known size in the foreground of a scene that doesn’t otherwise provide the viewer with information regarding the size of the subject. An example would be a sailboat on an otherwise featureless expanse of water. There may be no visible clues in the image that the sailboat is not a toy or small replica, however a palm tree in the foreground will immediately make it clear that the sailboat is either full-size or a miniature.

The danger with this technique is improper placement that over-emphasizes the importance of the foreground object. The subjects of many pictures are often placed in the foreground specifically to draw your attention to them. Be sure to consider the scene’s balance and symmetry when including a foreground object, and position it so that it doesn’t dominate the scene and confuse the viewer as to what the subject or center of interest of the picture is.

ADDING DEPTH

You can create depth in a two-dimensional image by including people or other matching objects in the foreground, middle ground and background. However, if similar-appearing foreground objects are small while the middle ones are medium in size and the background objects are relatively large, the scale of the image may be thrown off and look compressed and unnatural. You will have created an optical illusion. Conversely, a large foreground subject, a medium-sized middle ground object, and a small-sized subject in the background will create the illusion of greater depth.

Geting close to this glassblower's product with a wide-angle lens to place it in the foreground creates a far more dramatic picture than a view from the side.
Geting close to this glassblower's product with a wide-angle lens to place it in the foreground creates a far more dramatic picture than a view from the side.

THE FOREGROUND AS A GRAPHICAL FRAME

Foreground elements, when used as a graphical framing device, contain the viewer’s attention like a picture frame, keeping the eye from straying beyond the image’s border and drawing attention to the center of interest. Use of this device is sometimes known as "compositional framing."

The requirements for effective compositional framing are:
(1) that the object in the foreground surrounds, at least partially, the view beyond,
(2) gives a graphical completeness to the picture,
(3) does not detract from the subject, and
(4) is natural, and looks like it belongs in the scene, therefore providing a sense of depth or three dimensionality.

A building’s archway, the overhanging branch of a tree or a window frame have all been effectively used by many photographers in this manner. While there is nothing wrong with using such tried-and-true foreground framing devices, the creative photographer should also attempt to be inventive, looking for unusual but effective foreground components that not only contribute to the image as framing device, but also contribute to the story the picture tells or add greater design interest.

When you come across a potential framing element, explore the different shooting angles that can be employed when using the element to frame your subject. Be sure you are not leaving too much distance between the subject and the foreground; either the framing effect won’t work or your subject will be too small and the entire photograph won’t work. If there would appear to be too much space between foreground and subject, step back and switch to a longer lens to compress the elements of the scene, or zoom in if you are using a zoom lens.

Framing with foreground elements is a strong technique, particularly when the frame is silhouetted. (See Silhouetted foreground.) Like any graphical device that stands out or dominates as a design element, it should be using sparingly to avoid becoming repetitive and cause the viewer to lose interest.

USE FOREGROUND ELEMENTS TO BLOCK OUT UNDESIRABLE OBJECTS

Change your shooting angle so that a bush or other natural element blocks the view of an object that detracts from your image – like a trash can or fire hydrant in the foreground. If there is no natural element available to use as a blocker from any of the choices of shooting angle available to you, consider whether you can move something into position. That something may be another person, a piece of furniture, a plant – any number of items – that in any event must look like it belongs in the scene. Go one step further by using an object that actually contributes to your picture if you can – for instance, use a colorful flowering potted plant in the foreground as a blocker when shooting bridal pictures.

No foreground objects available to use as a blocker? On a particularly sunny day, you may be able to use a light-blocking device to throw the undesirable foreground object into deep shade so that is less apparent in the picture. Another remedy may be to switch to a long lens and select a shallow depth of field so the foreground object gets thrown out of focus and is no longer a concern. As a final resort, you could try placing a very small object (a leaf, for instance) very close to the camera so it will be an out-of-focus blocker.

An effective graphical frame like this weathered driftwood contributes to an image.
An effective graphical frame like this weathered driftwood contributes to an image.

FOREGROUND OBJECTS CAN DIRECT THE VIEWER’S EYE

Parallel lines running from the foreground into the picture are a prime example of using foreground elements to draw a viewer into an image. An example you will frequently come across uses railroad tracks that seem to originate at the base of the photograph. The eye automatically follows them as they proceed towards the horizon, and somewhere on the way there we are rewarded with a view of the image's center of interest itself. The center of interest may be a cabin, the setting sun or a train on the tracks, but the design element that drew us to it originated in the foreground – the viewer’s entrance to the image.

Foreground objects do not need to be as obviously symmetrical as railroad tracks, or roads, river banks or telephone poles to attract the viewer to the center of interest. However, a sense of artistry in visually placing other objects is essential for them to have the desired effect. Two bulky objects of the same size located side-by-side in the foreground will likely serve as a barrier to the picture, achieving the opposite effect . By selecting a different angle of view so that one of the objects is smaller in the viewframe is more effective, and if there is a third similar object at a greater distance, the eye cannot resist and looks to see where this progression of elements is leading. The fact that the first element in the visual trail is right up front in the foreground is the clue the viewer needs to follow the trail. Trying to achieve the same effect by placing all of such objects at a distance is generally ineffective.

Remember that the foreground does not necessarily mean the bottom of the image. An umbrella overhead or the curved arch of tree branches as they recede tunnel-like into the distance can be just as effective as lower foreground elements.

A partially-silhouetted tree serves as the perfect frame for this picture, adding interest and drawing the viewer's eye into the frame. Try to imagine the picture without the tree in the foreground. The large expanse of sky would create imbalance.
A partially-silhouetted tree serves as the perfect frame for this picture, adding interest and drawing the viewer's eye into the frame. Try to imagine the picture without the tree in the foreground. The large expanse of sky would create imbalance.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

There is a useful photographic exercise to help in training you to quickly see picture opportunities that are based on the inclusion of foreground elements. Set yourself a goal, that you will go out to find and shoot one example of each of the above uses of foreground elements to improve your picture-taking skills – showing:

  • scale,
  • depth,
  • graphical framing,
  • blocking an undesirable element, and
  • directing the viewer’s eye to the center of interest.
Use a checklist to mark off the categories as you shoot them, and then examine your pictures in your digital camera's viewframe or, if you are shooting film, when the pictures have been processed, to see how you could have improved on them. (Be sure to include one picture that shows the object you blocked out before you used a foreground blocker so you can appreciate the difference.) If you do this exercise at least once but preferably twice to check your improvement, you will be well along the road to advancing your photographic skills.

Victoria, capitol of British Columbia in Canada, is framed by foreground leaves for a pleasing composition.
Victoria, capitol of British Columbia in Canada, is framed by foreground leaves for a pleasing composition.

ILLUMINATING THE FOREGROUND

When foreground objects are dark, even completely silhouetted, the effect may be just what you desire. But, you might also wish to brighten a dark foreground without affecting the exposure of the background. This can often be achieved using reflectors or fill flash. The pictures below illustrate the effect of fill flash.

Fill flash was used to brighten the partially-silhouetted interior. Note that the exposure for the naturally-illuminated scene is unaffected.
Fill flash was used to brighten the partially-silhouetted interior. Note that the exposure for the naturally-illuminated scene is unaffected.

 
Related topics...

Can we learn good composition?

Center of Interest

Common framing mistakes

Depth of Field

Design interest

Fill flash

How much will be in focus?

Optimum aperture