You probably can’t put your finger on it, but when you are looking at a sweeping landscape scene, and you fail to connect with that image, more often than not, it’s because that composition lacks foreground elements. Seasoned landscape photographers, when they are out scouting for the ideal landscape image, are inspecting that scene and are typically considering what foreground feature(s) to include. Not necessarily every photographer has a formal term for it, but we like to think of it as “building landscapes in layers.”
I hate to throw food into the mix here because this is not about food photography but think about the layer cake, the more layers, the better. We want to approach our landscape images in the same way, as those layers help us to transition from the elements that are in the front of the scene all the way to those elements that make up the back of the composition.
Foreground elements in a scene, more often than not, can provide your final image with an increased sense of distance. When you can build that additional sense of depth into your frame, you are creating the type of result where viewers often say “they felt like they could almost reach into the scene.” This enhanced viewing appreciation is due in part to the increased sense of depth. Another side effect of this layered landscape composition is that more often than not the transition from foreground to background tends to provide the viewer with an entry and exit point in the frame. This is not to say that the background always has to be the most important destination in your composition, but this observation does mean that a viewer might be spending more time engaged with your image.
Framing It Up
Throwing in foreground elements, without thought, is not going to fill the bill here. You need to apply the same care to these new elements as you would the rest of your composition.
Potentially these foreground elements could serve as a frame for your image, as long as that frame provides context to the scene or fits the meaning that is already being conveyed by the rest of the composition.
At the very least, ensure that the lines of your foreground elements are compatible with the rest of the lines in the scene. These lines might be real, or might be implied, but they should be complementary to the overall composition. You get bonus points if the foreground elements fit into an elegant s-curve or some other arcing lines that provide depth in the scene. Okay, that’s our bonus point system, but we believe in it.
Including The Foreground
You can dictate the strength of your foreground by your selection of lens. The wider the focal length you use, the more of the scene’s foreground elements you can include in your composition. On a crop sensor camera, lenses in the 15-18mm range are considered by most landscape photographers to be the ideal choice. For those using cameras with full-frame sensors, lenses in the 24-28mm range provide an equivalent field of view. The lenses above, used with the indicated sensor sizes, will include a reasonable amount of the foreground scenery without sacrificing the landscape in the background.
Wider field of view lenses, say around 10mm for a crop sensor camera, tend to overpower the foreground with the wider, grander background view. For full-frame cameras, we start to see this concern as we get nearer to say 15mm in focal length. You can compensate for this effect by moving closer to the foreground objects, but this isn’t always possible.
Let The Scene Do The Talking
Keep something else in mind here. Don’t hesitate to rotate the camera into portrait orientation when the foreground elements call for it. Even in a wide scenic view, if the foreground elements have a strong vertical presence, embrace that presence and shoot a couple of frames giving in to that strong vertical tendency.
Nothing Is Free:
As you begin to incorporate more and more foreground elements into your landscape imagery, it won’t take you long to realize that depth of field is becoming an issue. It’s not that we have exposed some new depth of field limitation, it’s just that these new foreground elements are making it more evident than before. Heretofore, you have likely drawn very little attention to the foreground layer, but now these objects and their relationship to overall focus in the scene is becoming more and more apparent.
There are two methods we can use to deal with this newly exposed depth of field concern. The first method involves shooting what is known as a focus stacked sequence. The second method consists of maximizing depth of field, by calculating and using the hyperfocal distance for the lens and aperture setting. Let’s take a look at both of these methods, starting off with a discussion on focus stacking shoots.
In any scene, where you want to build more depth of field than is supported natively by the lens, at its smallest aperture, you can potentially utilize focus stacking. Focus stacking involves setting the focal point somewhere near the foreground of the scene and taking a shot. You then move the focal point backward and snap an additional frame at each focal point that you set. If you correctly work from front to back and maintain a depth of field overlap in the successive frames, you can then use an application such as Photoshop to merge them intelligently together.
There are some things worth noting if you are considering this approach:
First, most photographers elect to use an aperture around f/8.0 for their focus stacking work, considering this aperture to be the “sweet spot” of most lenses. In other words, for most lenses, this medium-sized aperture setting offers the best optical characteristics of the lens and a reduced set of optical aberrations. Obviously, if you are shooting at an aperture of f/8.0, you must take care that the depth of field of each frame shot, overlaps that of the one before and after it.
Secondly, there is a clear and obvious limitation observed here, nothing in the scene can be moving. In fact, you don’t even want the camera moving, and most photographers use a tripod to avoid this. Any movement in the scene makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for the processing software to merge all the resulting frames into one image.
All that having been said, in the right circumstance, focus stacking can be very effective, just ensure that you have checked for movement in the scene and that you have sufficient focal overlap in your component images.
The second technique, in our bags of tricks, is that of hyperfocal distance. So first off, what is the hyperfocal distance for a scene? In simplest terms, the hyperfocal distance for a scene is a calculation that tells the photographer how far into the scene they must focus to obtain the maximum possible depth of field for that scene. Hyperfocal distance is a somewhat complicated calculation, and it involves some variables. We will forgo all of that mathematics for now (look for a future article) and let you know there are lots of smartphone apps to make this a lot easier. Let’s tear this apart, at least at a surface level.
If you set your focal point on your foreground object, then it is likely that your background is going to be out of focus. Not always, but likely. Conversely, if you set your focal point on some object in the background, then it is likely that the foreground layer will be out of focus. Again, not always, but likely. This set of bookends should clue you into the idea that maybe there is some focal point in the middle that is ideal. That focal point would be the hyperfocal distance.
Before you accept all of this at face value, let me offer you the definition of hyperfocal distance as the optical world sees it (pun totally intended…). With a technical definition of “the closest focusing distance that allows objects at infinity to be acceptably sharp,” there is a gap between interpretation and application. Again, further study of hyperfocal distance probably makes sense if you wish to master the subject. For now, consider hyperfocal distance calculator apps to be your best friends in the field.
Bottom line no matter which approach you choose, to ensure maximum depth of field, remember that those foreground objects should now start to matter. Ensure that they are in focus, add value to the scene and draw the viewer’s eye where you want it to go. These layers will help to build realism and a sense of tangible depth to your images, making your landscape much more lifelike and dynamic overall.
This article was brought to you by Soft Lite Studios and workshop guides Tim Neumann and Lorie McQuirt. As producers of photography workshops and educational content, we are passionate about all things related to fine art imaging. Specializing in location planning, photographic technique, and post-production insights, we love to share this information with our workshop clients and friends. See you out there!