In landscape photography, the foreground, middleground and background play important roles in creating a well-rounded composition. The foreground adds depth and dimension to a photo, while the middleground and background provide a sense of scale and place. By carefully considering all three elements, photographers can create visually appealing and informative images.
Although photography is a two-dimensional art, to call an image “flat” is not exactly a compliment. Indeed, a good photograph, especially a landscape, should create the illusion of depth.
Depth is achieved through placing objects of interest in the foreground, middleground and background. It’s a technique that dates back to the Renaissance when it was first used in paintings.
Understanding this concept will help you create powerful compositions and give your landscapes a strong sense of scale.
Beyond the Golden Ratio and the Rule of Thirds
We already discussed in length the Golden Ratio and the Rule of Thirds in previous articles. Both are powerful composition tools that view the image as a grid of horizontal and vertical lines, the idea being placing the objects of interest somewhere at the intersections of those lines.
The two principles allow us to create balanced and eye-pleasing compositions, whether we shoot portraits or products. With landscapes, though, we need the illusion of depth. And that’s something neither the Rule of Thirds, nor the Golden Ratio can give us.
We can add depth and scale to our image if we simply identify its foreground, middleground, and background.
Consider the image below. I took it in the Valley of the Gods in Utah. There are clear boundaries between all three areas.
The most prominent object of interest – the rock formation – is placed in the middleground. The rocks in the background have subdued colors, further enhancing the sense of distance. And then, the foreground, with its yellowish-green tones, adds both balance and warmth to the whole frame.
This is a classic example of combining the Rule of Thirds with the concept of depth in landscape photography. Note that the main object of interest is placed to the side at the intersections of two horizontal and one vertical line (that is, in compliance with the Rule of Thirds).
The photograph below, on the other hand, exemplifies a combination of the Phi-Grid (Golden Ratio) and the concept of depth.
One of the objects of interest here – the church – is placed more to the center and occupies the narrower horizontal middle section typical of the phi-grid. Along with the line of trees, it forms the background. Then we have a strong foreground with two trees placed along a vertical axis.
We don’t really have an object of interest in the middleground – the lake – here. But it serves well as a boundary between the foreground and the background by means of color contrast.
Foreground, Middleground and Background in Landscape Photography
Add An object of Interest in All Three Areas
It would be great if you managed to place something eye-catching in the foreground, midground, and background. Put the objects close to the intersections of horizontal and vertical lines – in compliance with the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio – and you should have a well-built composition.
In my experience, it’s not always possible to place interesting objects in all three areas. But I find that if you have strong points of interest in two areas, it’s enough to create a landscape with a sense of scale and depth.
The two areas are most often the background and the foreground or the background and the middleground.
For example, in the photograph of John Ford’s Point in Monument Valley, there are no clear objects of interest in the middleground. Yet, the image manages to convince the viewer there’s a considerable distance between the rock formation in the foreground and the mountains in the background.
Use Leading Lines
Leading lines are especially helpful in emphasizing a sense of scale and depth in landscapes. Those are natural or manmade lines or curves such as rivers or roads that let the eye of the viewer travel into the image, arriving at the exact point of interest.
Consider the photograph below, which is another look at Monument Valley. I used the curvy road as a leading line that begins in the foreground and takes the viewer straight to the rock formations in the background.
There’s an undeniable sense of distance but also of scale. The truck’s size, which can be seen on the road, gives the viewer a very good idea of how vast the scene is.
Maximize Depth of Field
In landscape photography, you want the whole image to be sharp – from foreground to background. To achieve this, you need to close the aperture (pick a higher f-number such as f8 and above).
This will require a slower shutter speed, but it shouldn’t be a problem as you have your camera on a tripod anyway.
To master depth of field maximization, you may want to learn about the concept of Hyperfocal Distance. Hyperfocal distance refers to the point at which you focus a lens to maximize depth of field. To learn more about the depth of field, check my dedicated tutorial here: Hyperfocal Distance In-Depth
Foreground, Middleground and Background | Conclusion
Rule of Thirds, interesting objects in each area of foreground, middleground, background, and leading lines in one photograph? You might wonder if it’s possible at all.
The answer is yes.
Simply follow the 3 step framework to add a sense of scale and depth to your landscape photos.
- Step #1 – Identify objects of interest in at least two areas of foreground, middleground, and background
- Step #2 – Arrange the objects of interest you identified in step one according to the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio.
- Step #3 – Align the scene’s leading lines (natural or manmade) with the rest of the composition.
(Also, check The Composition Checklist for Landscapes).
These skills can’t be learned overnight, but if you go out and shoot as much as possible, they’ll become your second nature.
The portfolios of your favorite landscape photographers (or even painters!) will also help you immensely. Don’t be afraid to steal an idea or two. Everyone did it before they coined their style.
Do you have any questions about using foreground, middleground, and background? Let me know in the comments below.