Digital Camera Tips > Fore, Middle and Background

Foreground, Middleground and Background

Layering elements in your landscape photos creates depth

Have you ever noticed how some landscape photos look flat?

The scenery is beautiful, the light is nice, but the photo itself looks compressed. It's hard to distinguish the different elements in the scene.

Draw In The Viewer

Here is a strategy to improve your landscape photos and really draw the viewer in: make sure you include something interesting for the viewer to look at in the foreground, middleground and background.

Capturing something interesting in the background is usually pretty easy. With landscape photography, it is probably the background that caught your eye in the first place. Maybe it's a snow-covered mountain, maybe it's a waterfall or perhaps an interesting land mass. Let's say that you fill the frame of your photograph with this subject. It might turn out nice, but there is not a lot of depth.

The first step is to add an interesting visual element that appears right in front of the background subject. In the case of the mountain, it might be a lake. In the case of the waterfall, it might be a grove of pines. Whatever this object might be, including it in your photograph will already give your photo some depth.

Now, try to capture something in the foreground, close to where you are taking the photograph from. Let's go back to that mountain photograph again: now you've got the mountain in the background, the lake in the middleground, and if you can find some bright flowers or other foliage close to the camera, you've got your foreground.

Wide Angles and Narrow Apertures

If you've already determined the camera settings you need to include the foreground, middleground and background, then good for you! You're either camera savvy or have read other sections of this web site.

For those scratching their heads, don't worry! We've got the answer for you.

Wide-Angle Lens

The first thing that you need to include all three elements in your photo is a wide-angle lens (or a zoom lens at its wide-angle setting). You need a wide angle lens so that you can get all these elements in your photo at the same time. For example, if you use a telephoto lens, you might only be able to get the mountain in your photo.

If you use a moderate telephoto, you can get the mountain and lake. If you use a wide-angle, you can get foreground, middleground and background and really suck your viewer into the photo.

Narrow Aperture

If you've read all about aperture and depth of field, you'll know that a large aperture number (which creates a narrow opening) results in a large depth of field.

It's important to use a high aperture number (f16 and higher) when you are including the foreground, middleground and background. The reason you need this depth of field is so that none of the elements in your photo appear out of focus. From foreground to background, everything will be perfectly clear.

Having this substantial depth of field and clarity throughout the entire photo will also help to draw your viewer into the scene.

Photo Examples

f16 at 1/250sec, ISO 200, 135mm

This first photo shows what happens when you use a telephoto lens. The view is compressed, and there is a lack of depth in the photo.

While different elements can be considered the foreground, middleground and background, it is not clear which one is which.

There is nothing in the foreground that helps the viewer get a sense of the size of the mountains in the photograph, and nothing that helps them determine just how far away the mountains are.

f16 at 1/250sec, ISO 200, 28mm

This second image shows distinct foreground, middleground and background elements.

The bench and dog are in the foreground, the lake is in the middle and the mountain and clouds make up the background.

Note that the second photo uses a focal length of 28mm vs. 135mm. This is the difference between using a wide-angle setting and a telephoto setting when taking landscape photographs. You can include more with a wide-angle setting or lens.

Set Yourself Up

Including something interesting in all three planes of your photo will sometimes require a change of position. Sometimes the best shot of the background won't include anything worth looking at in the foreground. Sometimes a compelling middleground has nothing else to support it.

One of the hardest aspects of good landcape photography is finding that magic spot that includes something interesting from foreground to background. The upside is that this gives you a great reason to thoroughly explore your surroundings. And when you explore, you never know what surprises you might find!