Take A Plane Ride

An important aspect of landscape photography is the concept of Foreground>Midground>Background as a compositional guideline. Each plane should be treated with equal regard. This concept is often imitated, yet photographers still struggle using it. Sometimes it’s the aesthetic that gets in the way and sometimes it’s the technical aspect. Regardless of the reason, the phenomenon got me thinking. If it works for a landscape, why not try it on scenes of a less grand scale. For that matter, why not incorporate it when making images of any subject? Evidenced time and time again, regardless of the size of the subject, it worked.

Create The Composition: Landscapes are one of the most frequently shot subjects in nature photography. Yet most compositions are created with a camera mounted to a fully extended, upright tripod. While I applaud the fact a tripod is used, I question if it’s being used to its fullest diversity. Utilizing the foreground>midground>background technique more often than not requires that the photographer lowers the tripod so he or she can be very close to the element that creates the strong foreground. I refer to this as “in your face” photography in that a wide-angle lens is within a few feet of the foreground item. This exaggerates its size and makes it appear much larger than in reality. The next layer, the midground, should be tied into the composition and connect both the foreground and background.

Whether a photographer creates a grand landscape or a scene that takes on less space, the same principles stand. The foreground should be prominent, the midground should connect to the fore and background and a key part of the composition should be found in the background. At times, dramatic light helps create the effect. Should this happen, take full advantage. Passing clouds create shadows. These dark areas constantly change position in the scene. Wait for times when the most prominent element is illuminated and the background goes into shade. The part that’s lit takes on the greatest importance and the darker areas become secondary. The eye always goes to the brightest parts of a photo before they journey to the dark sections. Use light to your advantage to emphasize the fore>mid>background concept.

Technical End:
Note that in each image, my tripod was low and the wide or semi wide-angle lens was close to the foreground element. With this in mind, in order to get all planes in focus, it’s essential to maximize depth of field. Use an aperture of ƒ/16 or smaller, mount the camera to a tripod, and use a cable release to prevent camera movement. Use the hyper focal distance, which essentially has you focus one third into the frame to maximize depth of field. What you want to attain is everything that’s one third in front of the focus point be sharp and everything that’s two thirds in back of it be sharp. The tripod is necessary in that corresponding shutter speeds will be too slow to get a crisp image if the camera is handheld. So regardless of the subject matter you photograph, look for situations where foreground>midground>background planes of focus can be incorporated and use the above techniques to create them.

Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.


    Ok Russ I love your second in this series of three photos. So my style and I do practice what you’ve written in my landscapes but always love to read articles, so Thank You. I know where the third photo was taken, can or would you be willing to share where the second was taken? If not, I understand. Beautiful shot! Rosanna (Montana)

    Rosanna – thanks for the kind words and I’m glad you follow my Tips. I hope you capture some great images by following what I write. The image you cite was made in Mayflower Gulch in CO in July when the columbine are in bloom.


    I love your first photo, and I agree about the foreground, midground and background, and about lowering the tripod.
    Regarding the second picture, the background is almost absence of any existence, and photo number three, the foreground adds nothing to the picture. Most photographs of the Grand Tetons use the barn as the foreground, for a better composition.

    Robert – thanks for the comments – regarding photo number 2, the text of paragraph 3 relates to what I cited where passing clouds create shadows to make the foreground dominate – give the article a re-read to see how it relates to the image. With regards to the shot of the barn, I try to avoid the cliche, especially with often photographed subjects. I used the sage as the foreground to bring the viewer’s eye to the mid ground, the barn, which in turn brings the eye to the background, the Teton range. Just because it’s “always” photographed in a certain way, don’t fall into the trap of repeating what everyone else does. Hope this helps.

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