The Concept of Foreground, Middleground and Background in Landscape Photography

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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.

The Concept of Foreground, Middleground and Background in Landscape Photography

Depth is achieved by means of placing objects of interest in the foreground, middleground and background. It’s a technique that dates back at least from 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 which further enhances 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 how to combine 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 lines (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.

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, though, 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.

In the photograph of John Ford’s Point in Monument Valley, for example, 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.

Using 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 the 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 size of the truck which can be seen on the road gives the viewer a very good idea of how vast the scene is.

A little technical reminder here

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.

Does it sound difficult?

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 interests you identified in step one, according to the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio.
  • Step #3 – Align the leading lines (natural or manmade) of the scene with the rest of the composition.

(Also, check The Composition Checklist for Landscapes).

These are skills that can’t be learned overnight but if you go out and shoot as much as you can, 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 own style.

Do you have any questions on the use of foreground, middleground and background? Let me know in the comments below.

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