Everybody tells you to put a foreground into your landscapes. But why?
Today, I want to give you the in-depth reasoning behind that practice.
The Problem of Two-Dimensionality
Photographs are, for the purpose of this article, simply a reduction
of the three-dimensional world around us into two dimensions.
Our eyes, being used to seeing three-dimensionally, are missing this
depth information when looking at photographs. A photograph will
therefore look the same if you look at it using just one eye versus
with both eyes.
So the photographer, especially in traditional landscape photography,
has to think of ways to suggest depth to the viewer, to trick the eye
and the brain into believing we are looking at a 3D scene.
How Foreground Elements Help Our Vision
Using a layering system of foreground, midground, and background is
the most basic way of suggesting three-dimensionality to the eyes. One
element being behind the other makes it clear that the image has
Next, imagine seeing an image of a dune. How do you know how tall it
is? The answer is: if there is no other information in the picture,
you can only guess.
This is where scale comes in. Scale and size can be shown by the
camera angle, for example – pointing the camera upwards at an object
makes it look bigger, because it towers above us.
More importantly, other elements in the picture, of which we know the
size (such as the human figure, some rocks, animals or plants), are a
tremendous help for determining the size of other elements in the
picture. This is the main reason why everyone urges you to use
foreground elements! Scale is a fundamental aspect of landscape
photography. Making things look vast, huge, or microscopically small
is essential in creating a meaning or communicating your idea through
A visible perspective is more descriptive than a completely flat
image. This is where, again, layering comes in. In photography, a
different way of visualising depth and separating image elements from
one another presents itself: depth of field. Positioning elements in
and out of focus is a great way of firstly, describing the level of
importance (an object that is out of focus is not as important as one
in focus), and secondly, creating layering and depths without a clear
perspective in the image.
Breaking the Rules
Now that we know what the rules are, and the reasons behind them,
let's try and break the rules to find exceptions!
How can a photograph without a foreground element work?
A possible solution is using the human figure. Note the photo below.
As you can see, my girlfriend Shruti doesn't need to be in the
foreground at all to allow the eye to perceive depth and a sense of
scale! In fact, she is not even really in the midground.
This is because we are seeing other humans every single day - we
/know/, how our proportions and height play together, and we can
therefore easily determine the rough distance of the human figure to
us. Even without having clear perspective lines in the image, the
trees and bushes in the fore- and midground help determine the
perspective of the lens. This makes the image appear three-dimensional
versus flat and 2D.
Are you always sticking to foreground, midground, background?
When do you deviate away from that formula?
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