An important goal of photographic composition is to create a feeling of three dimensions even though you are limited to only two. A key to good composition is to pre-visualize your image and make sure that all the elements in the scene “work” together in a way that is pleasing to the eye. In the end, you want your picture to give a sense of place.
One technique that often aids good composition is to place foreground objects in your scene to lead the eye into the background, which is often the main subject. Beginning photographers tend to simply point their cameras at something that catches their eye without stopping to think about how to place the subject in the total landscape.
In Fig. 1 we see an example of how this works. The Mormon Tea bush in the foreground leads the eye to hoodoos in the Garden of Eden section of Arches National Park, which are the real subjects of the picture. Without the foreground bush it would merely be a snapshot.
To use this technique successfully requires an understanding of the concept of depth of field, since you generally want to have both foreground and background in sharp focus. (There are times when you want to blur one or the other, but that is a subject for another time.)
Simply stated, depth of field (DOF) describes how much of the image your lens will be able to bring into focus. There are several factors that are at play here.
• The lens opening you select is a key factor because the smaller an f-stop you use, the more DOF you will have. As a rule-of-thumb, when including foreground subjects choose a setting of at least f/8 or higher.
• Where you place your focus is also important. If you focus too close, the background may be soft. Focus too far and you’ll miss details in the foreground. A simple trick is to focus about one-third of the way into the scene, making sure you are stopped down enough to bring both near and far subjects into focus.
• The focal length of the lens you choose, or the zoom setting you select, is another factor that affects DOF. A telephoto lens or longer zoom setting will result in less DOF.
In Fig. 2 the balanced rock is the main subject, but by placing the boulder in the foreground I added depth to the composition. The scene is along the Chicken Corners trail, over Hurrah Pass along the Colorado River south of Moab.
As mentioned above, setting the point of focus is essential to success. There are several schools of thought about this. Some photographers advocate focusing on the far object and then stopping down the lens to bring the foreground into focus. This can demand very small lens openings and perhaps a tripod. The Chicken Corners shot was hand-held and I focused on the foreground boulder about one-third of the way into the scene. I set the lens opening at f/10 to get plenty of DOF. The exposure was 1/125 second at ISO 100.
Stopping down your lens means longer exposures so this may require the use of a tripod. But, thanks to the excellent performance of the latest digital cameras it is often possible to use a higher ISO and still get great results with hand-held exposures. I often use ISO 800 for daylight landscape shots with my Canon 6D and the quality is fine. Compared to the ISO 50 film I used for many years, this gives me four extra stops of exposure. That means that instead of shooting at 1/50 second, for example, I can shoot at 1/800 second. The image stabilization built into many cameras and lenses can add the equivalent of another three stops, making tripods much less of a requirement for sharp images.
Here are two more examples of how pictures can be made more interesting by adding foreground objects to your compositions. In Fig. 3 a view of Mount Rainier in Washington State is enhanced by the inclusion of a flowering bush in the near foreground.
Fig. 4 shows how foreground foliage adds depth to a picture of the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park.
Next time you’re out shooting, stop and think about how to add extra interest to your images by including nearby objects in your compositions. By practicing the art of pre-visualizing your compositions you’ll be on the path to developing your skill as a landscape photographer.
David L. Brown lives in Moab where he leads photo tours and workshops. His website is at www.imagequest.photo and he can be reached at 435-210-8158. Ask about his “Welcome to Summer” workshop set for June 17-19.