Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to use foreground elements to create engaging compositions in the third article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
There is a very dramatic way of interpreting landscapes that I learned many years ago from David Muench. David did it with a 4x5 film camera, but it can be used with digital cameras as well. For people who have difficulty seeing compositions in nature, I think this particular technique will be very useful. It gives you something specific to look for—something to focus your attention on—that you might otherwise miss. Here is the formula that in so many situations will produce a stunning image:
- Use a wide-angle lens; the wider the lens is, the more dramatic your picture will be.
- Use either f/22 or f/32.
- Position the camera so that it is very close to an interesting or compelling foreground.
- Focus about 7 feet away from the camera position and shoot.
When I say that you place the foreground very close to the camera position, I am suggesting that whatever you use as the foreground element—a clump of wildflowers, an artistic rock texture, a fallen tree, reeds at the shore of a pond, a plant sticking up in the snow, etc.—should be between 3 and 5 feet away. If you place the foreground element farther away from the camera position, the drama in the photograph decreases. It can still be an effective image, but it won't reflect the technique I’m describing here.
To see what I’m talking about, look at the top image. It was taken in Arches National Park. Notice how close the fallen tree in the foreground is to the camera position. The lower right section was about 3 feet away. I did the same thing with a very different subject in the landscape image I made in Keukenhof Gardens in Holland, figure 3.2. The foreground tulips were again about 3 feet from my wide-angle lens, and I used a 16mm focal length with a full-frame sensor.
The reason that I focus about 7 feet from the camera position is because that gives me the maximum depth of field, given the composition and the small lens aperture of the wide-angle lens. This is, in essence, using the hyperfocal distance, which is the point of focus where everything from half that distance to infinity falls within the depth of field. When you focus 7 feet away, that means that from 3.5 feet to infinity with a wide-angle lens you will see sharp detail throughout the picture.
The only requirements for this technique to work, aside from the steps outlined above, are that the foreground be beautiful, interesting, or otherwise compelling, and that the background be similarly strong. This is especially true for the foreground. If the foreground is boring, out of focus, overexposed, or unattractive, the picture won’t work. Landscape photographers spend most of their time in the field looking for foregrounds that embellish their photographs. Usually the background has already been established. For example, in figure 3.3, I had already determined that the Eastern Sierra was going to be the background. I then had to find some kind foreground element that would look good represented as disproportionately large and dominating a significant part of the picture. I chose the rocks and grass you see in figure 3.3, and with a lens aperture of f/32, the result is a classic landscape image with sharp detail throughout.
Figure 3.4 is a very different type of landscape, yet I used the same principle. This was taken while I was standing in a canoe in a South Carolina swamp. (This is not a great thing to do with camera gear, but I wanted the shot.) I used the reflection in the water as the foreground and the base of the cypress trees as the background. In the shot of the Eastern Sierra, the distance between foreground and background was large—perhaps 10 miles. In figure 3.4, the distance to the stand of cypress trees was perhaps 20 feet. However, I used the same technique for both pictures: small lens aperture, camera physically close to the foreground, and wide-angle lens.
I like very much the exaggerated perspective gained by placing the lens so close to the foreground, and sometimes I move in even closer than 3 feet. Figure 3.5 is a shot I took in a cave in Borneo. The wide-angle lens was about 2 feet from the immediate foreground rocks. Note how disproportionately large the foreground looks. Similarly, in a beautiful forest in Ireland (figure 3.6) I used a unique tree as the dominant element. The 16mm wide-angle lens created an exaggerated sense of depth. I repeated the same type of look in figure 3.7 by using a man-made subject as the dominant foreground and a meadow as the background in central Tennessee.
When applying this technique to landscapes that include moving water, one of the benefits of using a small lens aperture is that the shutter speed can be very slow. Hence, the water blurs so that colors and tones blend artistically. Figure 3.8 is a picture I took in the Great Smoky Mountains. My exposure was 1/2 second, and that enabled me to use a small lens aperture; at the same time the long exposure made the water look incredibly soft.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow