Giving Forethought to Foregrounds: Using Foregrounds to Add Visual Interest

Traditional use of foregrounds
Traditional use of foregrounds

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

The subject matter is intriguing. The light is just right. Everything looks perfect. You’re all set to take the shot, but something seems missing when you look through the viewfinder. It’s the foreground. If the foreground lacks interest, or worse, is non-existent, it can really diminish the aesthetics of a scene. It’s not that the scene is ruined, it’s just significantly less interesting. I’ve foregone photographing many otherwise perfect scenes simply because I could not find an engaging foreground element.

Whether it’s to compliment the subject or to ensure that it’s free of distractions, most photographers are well-aware of the importance of the background in a photo. But, not too much thought is usually given to the foreground, which is just as important. A good foreground element will immediately grab your attention and help set the stage of the scene. It’s sort of like placing an attractive and well-groomed person in the reception area of an office. Being the first person visitors will encounter, their appearance will definitely form a lasting impression of the company as a whole.

Foregrounds also create depth – transforming a flat, one-dimensional scene into a more vibrant and realistic-looking composition.

Foreground elements can be included in many different ways. Probably one of the most common ways is how I used them in the opening seascape image that I shot off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Venice, FL. I could have photographed just the water and the sky anywhere along this several-mile stretch of beach, but I deliberately confined my shooting area to a tiny little area of no more than about 100 feet. This was the only area that had rocks along the shoreline and nearby trees with overhanging branches. It still would have been a nice-looking scene without them, but they certainly added to the esthetics by creating a sense of place.

In addition to esthetics, foreground elements can also be used as necessary compositional components. The photo below is one such example.

A photo of a rowboat on a beach. Foreground element used to add a sense of place
Foreground element used to add a sense of place

It was an extremely foggy day in Atlantic City, and shooting photos on the beach was quite a challenge. With the surf barely visible and no discernable landmarks, it wasn’t immediately evident that I was even on a beach at all. A nearby, overturned lifeboat saved the day. It served as the ultimate sense of place. In situations like this, the inclusion of a foreground is not just creative, it’s necessary so viewers know what they’re looking at.

Photo of a tree with winding limbs and fall colors. Using foreground elements with leading lines.
Using foreground elements with leading lines.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about using leading lines to draw the viewer into the photo. Foreground elements work in sort of the same way, and sometimes, the two are virtually interchangeable. In the fall foliage photo above, I used the tree as the foreground, but its branches (along with the broken one on the ground) also serve as leading lines into the scene. I placed the bright, yellow leaf in the crook of the tree to break up the predominantly dark tones in that area of the photo.

Sometimes, a foreground element can become the main subject of the shot. I was in New York’s Central Park shooting winter images when I came across the scene below. I had planned to use this decorative railing of a small bridge as the foreground to the winter scene below. But the railing was so perfectly coated with just the right amount of (undisturbed) snow, that I decided to make it the main focus (literally). I got down on the level of the railing and focused on it, fully open at f/2.8. The reduced depth of field slightly set it apart from the background. I also used a flash to highlight the few flakes that were falling closest to it.

Photo of a snow-covered railing Central Park.  When a foreground element becomes the main subject.
When a foreground element becomes the main subject.

The addition of a foreground requires careful thought and planning. Not only should it compliment the main subject, its inclusion should not appear forced, or as an annoying distraction. No matter how you intend to use it, an engaging foreground will definitely enhance your photos by adding significantly more visual interest.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.