Posted by: kerryl29 | September 15, 2016

On Foregrounds

I learned a valuable lesson 20-odd years ago.  This was back in my incipient days of approaching landscape photography seriously.  I spent a few days poking around Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, during which time I photographed many impressive views from some of the numerous overlooks that abut the park’s Skyline Drive.  I had high expectations of receiving many wonderful images when I picked up the film from the developer (yes, this was back in the film era), but upon doing so I was extremely discouraged.  The images were, virtually without exception, highly disappointing and reflected almost literally none of the excitement I felt when I was in the field.

It took me a little while to figure out what went wrong–or at least part of what went wrong–but I finally managed to sort it out.  I’d fallen into a trap that catches a lot of photographers:  a tendency to shoot with a wide angle lens in an open place, with little or no consideration of the importance of the foreground.

Icefields Parkway Afternoon, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Icefields Parkway Afternoon, Jasper National Park, Alberta

I’ve discussed the (counterintuitive) matter of photographing with telephoto lenses in wide open places before, but have never taken the time to delve in depth into a more common scenario:  wide angles in broad locales.  This has been an oversight on my part because it’s under such circumstances that a clear majority of photographers are most inclined to reach for the wide angle lens.

Cape Royal, Grand Canyon National Park - North Rim, Arizona

Cape Royal, Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim, Arizona

The problem with my Shenandoah experience can be essentially summarized in the following few sentences:

“Oh, wow…look at all that great stuff out there.  I want to include all of it!  How can I do that?  A wide angle lens!”

Bear Rocks Sunrise, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Bear Rocks Sunrise, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Let’s ignore, for the moment, the I-want-to include-all-of-it-as-an-inherently-desirable-thing part of the above quote.  (That may be the subject of a future post.)  Including “everything” in a situation like the one I’m describing means the presence of a lot of background.  And one of the aspects of using a wide angle lens that’s inescapable is:  distant objects will appear smaller to the camera than they do the naked eye.  The farther away they are and the wider the focal length, the smaller background objects will appear; that’s  a simple property of optics.  And so, if the attraction to the wide angle lens is “all that great stuff” way out there…well, it’s going to be a whole lot less prominent in your photograph than it is to your eye.

Pacific Coast, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Pacific Coast, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

And that’s what happened with those Shenandoah images–all the “great stuff” was minimized.  There were all these interesting, but tiny, objects in the distance which were dwarfed, in terms of importance by…well, by very little of any interest, because I’d given little or no attention to the things in the frame that were going to appear comparatively large:  collectively speaking, the foreground.

Virgin River, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah

Virgin River, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah

There are a number of ways to get out of this conundrum.  One is to emphasize those interesting background elements by using a longer focal length; doing so will make them more prominent in the frame.  And another option is to…well, pay careful attention to the foreground, with the understanding that doing so is going to fundamentally change the nature of the image.  (If you’re of the mind that determining the best choice might be a function of deciding the nature of the real center of interest of the image, give yourself a hearty pat on the back.  Maybe we’ll discuss this at greater depth in another post.)  And if you still want to choose that wide angle to capture that wide open place–and that’s not necessarily the wrong option–you’re going to want to start being highly conscious of your foreground options.

Two Jack Lake Sunrise, Banff National Park, Alberta

Two Jack Lake Sunrise, Banff National Park, Alberta



  1. Great looking valley

  2. Very interesting and helpful narrative along with your stunning photos, Kerry.
    I’ll return for another lesson, thank you very much for sharing.
    Best regards from the North,

    • Thanks, Dina, for stopping by and for the kind words.

  3. This is a timely reminder about the effectiveness of foregrounds in wide angle landscapes.

    • Thanks, Ellen!

  4. Superb images

  5. This is exactly the kind of thing I say to my art students. There’s just no area of a painting composition that doesn’t require careful consideration if you want the whole to work successfully to convey a message, emotion or certain feeling. It seems photography is just the same. I absolutely love Bear Rocks Sunrise- the dark silhouette of trees emphasises the glorious sky colours and the wonderful rugged foreground rocks provides great textural contrast with the rain clouds looming in the morning sky.
    Keep posting these inspiring shots!

    • Thanks very much! And agreed–the contents of the entire frame need to be considered to produce a strong, evocative image, regardless of the medium.

      The Bear Rocks image has a bit of a story behind it. It was my first visit to the location (I’ve returned a number of times). I arrived in the pitch dark and I’d been forewarned that it’s usually quite windy. When I stepped out of the car the wind was blowing a gale and a foggy mist was blowing all over the place. I wasn’t at all sure that there was even going to be a (visible) sunrise, but I was determined to find out. I had a flashlight with me–I didn’t have a headlamp back then–and groped my way to a spot on the rocks. (I’d also been warned to be careful–there’s quite a drop at this promontory and there are no guard rails or anything of that sort.) As the light came up I spotted the two trees and between the duo and the rocks (which I could see with the aid of the flashlight) decided to set up here–with the tripod quite low (in part to help stabilize it). The wind was blowing straight in my face and it was extremely cold; the thermometer in the car on the way up was reading right at freezing. I managed to find a small notch in the rocks where I could retreat to gain shelter from the wind from time to time. The technical challenges were, in no particular order: 1) obtaining a sufficient depth of field; 2) obtaining a sufficient dynamic range; and 3) obtaining a sufficient shutter speed to render the trees (which were frequently bending over–this wasn’t simply a case of branches dancing) as sharp objects. Just before sunrise a crack of light appeared on the horizon–a modest lifting of the fog–and then…boom: the sun rose into the crack between the horizon and the fog. I fired off a series of shots–can’t remember how many, but it wasn’t a lot–in the hope that I’d get something sharp and I got a few (though not all that many), including the one you see here. I tried to wait for lulls–relatively speaking–and I suppose that helped a bit, but ultimately the shooting window lasted for less than a minute. I was fairly lucky to get anything usable at all.

      On one of my following visits, the year after the above-related experience, I was up there again, three separate mornings. One was even worse than the occasion I described (wind and unparting fog–no sunrise at all). But the other two were much better. There was no wind to speak of–dead calm–on both the other mornings, one of which had a foggy sunrise. But on the final morning, the only fog was in the valleys below me. There was a full blown sunrise and absolutely dead calm conditions, and I milked this opportunity for everything it was worth.

      Some of the imagery from these mornings can be found here:

  6. This is such a useful post, as well as an enjoyable one filled with stunning images. I actually printed it out to take with me on my travels next month, just so I’ll be able to refresh my memory of what you have to say. I’m glad I dallied about commenting, too, as the addendum was quite interesting. I find the stories of how particular photos came to be as helpful as more technical articles about settings and so forth.

    • Thanks! I’m quite gratified to know that you found this post of value.

      Perhaps I’ll start posting the occasional “story behind the photo” entry on this blog. I’ve been hesitant to do so because of my concern that they’d read, primarily, as little more than “across the frozen tundra” pieces.

  7. Stunning photos. I ❤ your photos!

    • Thanks very much!

  8. A lot of really useful info, the comments really added a lot as well.

    • Thanks! Great to hear that you found the post (and the addendum in the form of the comments) of use.

  9. Great post, Kerry, with wonderful advice. I tend to grab a telephoto lens more often than a wide angle, but you make some great points about using the foreground elements. Not very many wide open vistas in this area except for the sky 🙂 I love the Two Jack Lake Sunrise shot – stunning!

    • Thanks very much, Lynn. Vistas in my part of the world are few and far between but there should be at least some in your general neck of the woods, considering how hilly western PA is. 🙂

  10. […] views don’t necessarily make good photographs” situations (a subject I mused about in an entry I posted several years […]

  11. I really like it when people come together and share opinions. Great site, continue the good work!

  12. […] trail and were treated to a truly spectacular view. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that a great view doesn’t necessarily make for a great photograph, but, conscious of this maxim, I endeavored to turn it on its head. You can be the judge of whether […]

  13. […] blogged on the subject of foregrounds before, most recently a number of years ago when I discussed the importance of this compositional facet when using a wide angle lens. Though I didn’t say so explicitly, the aforementioned piece kind of implies that this […]

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