Does every landscape photograph need a foreground? Not always. Some of the world’s most memorable landscape photographs lack any foreground – like Moon and Half Dome by Ansel Adams, or Galen Rowell’s Last Light on Horsetail Fall (go to page 2).
On the other hand, many classic landscape images do have foregrounds – prominent ones – like another Ansel Adams photograph, Mount Williamson from Manzanar, or many images by landscape master David Muench.
So how do you know when to include a foreground in your own landscapes? Ask yourself these questions:
Is the foreground compelling?
This might seem like an obvious question, but some photographers think that a foreground is an absolute requirement, and include one whether it’s interesting or not. A boring foreground just takes up valuable image space and distracts from other, more interesting parts of the photograph.
In fact I think the foreground has to be more interesting than the background – otherwise the foreground won’t hold its weight, and viewers will wish (perhaps unconsciously) that the background was a bigger part of the photograph.
On the other hand, finding a truly eye-catching foreground can add greatly to a scene, especially if the background is not that compelling. While I liked the shapes of the dunes in New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, I thought this lone yucca was even more interesting. This image is all about the foreground, while the background takes a secondary role:
How interesting is the background?
Is the background compelling enough to stand on its own? If so, you probably don’t need a foreground, and including one will just draw attention away from that interesting background.
This scene at California’s Mono Lake, with a rainbow and spectacular storm clouds, doesn’t need a foreground. Bushes or trees at the bottom of of the frame would only be a distraction. I didn’t think for a second about trying to find a foreground here, and used a telephoto lens to fill the frame with all that drama on the other side of the lake:
Does the foreground complement the background?
You can have a great foreground, and a wonderful background, but if the two don’t mesh the final photograph will look like two different images stuck together. For the foreground and background to complement each other they have to have similar lines, shapes, or colors, or the foreground has to lead the viewer’s eye to the background.
This photograph from Yosemite has beautiful swirling ice patterns in the foreground, and mist-shrouded El Capitan in the background. But it doesn’t work—the two halves of the image don’t fit together because the lines in the bottom are mostly horizontal, while the lines in the top are mostly vertical. It looks disjointed:
In this next photograph of Three Brothers, made only about 100 feet from the previous example, the foreground and background complement each other because they have similar shapes. The triangular shapes of the snow mounds echo the triangular shapes of the peaks, and those foreground triangles actually form arrows that point to the background, leading the viewer’s eye into the frame:
So any time you’re deciding whether to include a foreground, ask yourself whether the foreground is compelling – at least as compelling as the background. Then ask whether the foreground’s lines and shapes mesh with the background. If the foreground doesn’t meet both those criteria, then either look for a better one, or leave it out.
— Michael Frye
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.