Focus On The Foreground

Look down to add depth and emotion to your images

This Article Features Photo Zoom

fog trees Sunset, Mesquite Flat Dunes and Funeral Mountains, Death Valley National Park, Calif. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark IlI (tripod-mounted), Canon 90mm T-S ƒ/2.8 lens, exposed at 1⁄8 sec. at ƒ/32, ISO 100

In landscape photography, the foreground is often an important element in composing a photograph. The use of nearby objects such as flowers, a flowing river or branches of a tree is a common way to lead the viewer back into the scene toward the major geographic landmarks of a place. A field of poppies leads the eye back toward green, rolling hills. A meandering stream wanders across the image frame to reveal golden desert cliffs beyond. One key advantage to using prominent foregrounds is that it gives the viewer a sense of being there, that one could walk right into the scene. On the other hand, if one wishes to create some mystery to a landscape, providing a lot of context and description will leave little to the imagination.

On a recent visit to Death Valley, I photographed the ubiquitous Mesquite Flat Dunes at sunset. I’ve been photographing these dunes since 1979 and still love the place. As often as it has been photographed, its ever-changing nature makes it a worthy mecca for landscape photographers. Being so attracted to photographing nature’s designs, there are always new sand patterns that blow me away!

On this particular hike, I was looking for some scenic compositions I needed for clients of mine. For practical reasons, I often have to remind myself not to focus on abstract patterns! The net result in any given shooting session is that I create images for both commerce and myself.

Waterfall Dune Pattern, Mesquite Flat Dunes at Sunset, Death Valley National Park, Calif. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark IlI (tripod-mounted), Canon 90mm T-S ƒ/2.8 lens, exposed at 1⁄8 sec. at ƒ/32, ISO 100

Here are two images from the dunes. I was captivated with this snakelike pattern, and I started photographing it as a foreground element for a broader landscape composition. I worked the scene with various compositions, horizontal and vertical, mostly using my 90mm T-S lens.

Next, I started to photograph with the pattern as an isolated shape. Again, I worked on several different framings of the pattern. The sun was going down, and I made the Dune Pattern image with the sun low to the sky, but not yet blocked by clouds to the west.

I wandered off in search of other foreground elements, but I found nothing as exciting. While doing this, the sun went behind clouds for the evening. I waited to see if nice sunset colors would appear in the sky and on the peaks to the east. The Sunset, Mesquite Flat Dunes image captured the serenity of the evening for me. Although I wouldn’t have minded if the sunset had been more dramatic, I appreciated the peace and beauty of the moment.

The next time you make landscape photographs, remember how important it is to have strong graphic interest in your compositions. Be selective when picking your foregrounds. They need to be just as cleanly designed and well lit as any other part of your composition. Think of the foreground as providing a clear and interesting pathway into the scene. Pay attention to the shapes and forms of the foreground to see how they might relate to objects beyond. The image often can be enhanced by contrasts, such as delicate flowers before rugged mountains or by similarities like rounded beach pebbles before wave-worn sea cliffs. Most importantly, experiment and have fun!

To visit his Photo Blog or sign up for newsletter updates on his Landscape Essentials course with, visit William Neill’s website at

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.