Posted by: kerryl29 | June 27, 2022

On Foregrounds, Sans the Grand Landscape

I’ve 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 foreground/wide angle relevance only applies when photographing grand landscapes. All of the presented examples, after all, include the horizon. and most are near-far wide angle images. To the extent that the piece implies that foreground importance isn’t a relative concept for more intimate scenes, I want to take this opportunity to clarify the record.

Back in April of this year, I spent a week in the Smoky Mountains–a trip that will be chronicled here, eventually–and when I was processing the images made in the Smokies I remembered that there were quite a few instances when I was very deliberately using foreground elements as prominent compositional anchors for scenes that were decidedly not of the grand landscape variety. I’m going to include a couple of these photographs in this entry and briefly discuss why I composed the images the way I did, with an emphasis on the inclusion of foreground elements. Most, if not all, of these images, will likely be regarded as at least a bit unorthodox.

Little River Reflections, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Little River Reflections

The reflections are what initially caught my eye, but as I wandered around with my camera in hand, I wasn’t pleased with any of the perspectives I examined that isolated those reflections, either as straight water abstracts, or as semi-abstracts with an anchoring element (e.g. amidst a rock, a log, etc.). I had been examining the weathered tree trunk you see in the mid-ground on the right hand side of the frame, and spent some time looking at the extensive root system and the swath of flowers growing between the roots and the trunk. I spent quite a bit of time looking at and ultimately rejecting intimate shots including the roots, flowers and trunk. (I should note that this was my first hour in the field on this trip and my image-finding workflow was certainly a bit rusty. I spent quite a bit of time at this spot before I ever seriously considered tripping the shutter.)

It was only after rejecting a rash of possibilities that I began to think about going a bit wider and including the element (the reflections) that had attracted my attention in the first place, as part of a broader scene. I had to maneuver around in the relative shallows of the Little River quite a bit before I found a composition that I really felt worked. Going fairly wide, I had to get close to the foreground roots/rocks element, with the flowers and trunk in the near-midground, buttressing the reflections. I felt that the lines and angles of the foreground and midground naturally led to the background–towards the upper left, where the whitewater and log essentially meet the far shoreline.

There are other ways of composing this scene, of course, but I think that the foreground elements are absolutely crucial to making it work. In fact, I thought about (and actually examined the possibility of) using the flowers as the primary foreground element, but doing so completely changed the perspective, and not in a positive way. (The trunk became far too dominant and, by necessity, moved to a more central location in the frame. It was a combination I didn’t like at all.)

But the overarching point is the critical role of the foreground in the image–despite the fact that the scene is (relatively) intimate in nature. By thinking in terms of foreground/midground/background, an enhanced sense of depth is present. Not composing in this manner would have left the final product with a flat, in dimensional terms, appearance.

Let’s examine one more image:

Whiteoak Sink, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Whiteoak Sink

I made a couple of images of this S-curve in the trail (facing the opposite direction from what you see here) without the tree frame, and I like them well enough, but there’s something a bit more impactful to me about the above rendition. I like the texture present on the trunks–both the natural contours of the grooves in the bark and the moss/lichen growth–in its own right, but I particularly like the way the frame keeps the eye focused on the snaking trail as it unfurls through the carpet of wildflowers, towards the background of the fame and through another stand of trees.

I had spent some time in Whiteoak Sink, mostly focused on the copious wildflowers (predominantly phlox and trillium). After photographing the trail in a more conventional manner, I began to look for other ways to compose the scene, something that would emphasize a sense of depth in this comparatively tightly constrained location. I noticed some tree trunks whose shapes created natural “windows” upon which to peer through and after looking at and rejecting several such specimens for a variety of reasons, found the one you see here. When I saw that I could include the S-curve, I knew that I had found my base perspective and then went about fine-tuning the rendering of the scene.

Again, it’s the inclusion of a foreground element–using a wide angle lens (I was right on top of that trunk)– as an intrinsic part of the composition that sets this image apart from the others I made at this location.

Being conscious of foreground possibilities, particularly in relatively densely-laden locations like the ones represented in the above images, can help you think in compositional terms–both the elements that you include/exclude and the focal length you choose to represent those elements within a moderately wider scene–that you might otherwise never consider.

I’ll include one more example from the trip, without further commentary.

Grotto Falls

Grotto Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee


  1. A good lesson with great examples. Too often when we survey a scene we are looking at the grand landscape and miss the opportunity to narrow the composition. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thanks, Ellen.

      At one point during the trip, I was shooting along Laurel Creek and was taking a very close look at a series of cascades and I looked downstream for some reason and I noticed another photographer, something like 75 feet behind me, patiently waiting for me to get out of his shot. I yelled (the rushing water was making quite a racket) to him that I was sorry and I’d get out of his way, and he waved his arm and shook his head, basically saying that it was no big deal. It wasn’t long before he was done and when he came upstream, I apologized (we were now near enough to hear one another) and he said not to worry about it, he was basically done by the time I’d wandered into the scene. And then he said, “you might want to check out the spot I was shooting from, it’s great. So I did, after I finished at the spots that I’d already identified. And when I got to his spot, I realized that it was a good spot…if you wanted a telephoto shot facing the cascade head on. There were no foreground elements of any kind….there wasn’t much of a midground either. I made no images at that spot. Horses for courses, as they say.

  2. I am guessing you shoot using a small aperture to get everything in focus or pretty close, or a tilt shift lens? What glorious tree roots in that first picture and I sure like the moss in the other ones, These photos have the effect of making my eye travel from one element to the other throughout the image. Nicely planned.

    • Thanks, Jane.

      All three images included in this post are the result of focus stacking with a conventional lens. Little River Reflections is a three-frame stack; WhiteOak Sink is four frames; Grotto Falls is two. I don’t think I could have obtained sharp front-to-back photographs with a single frame in any of them, even if if I’d set the aperture to f/22, and I almost never stop down below f/11, in an attempt to avoid excessive diffraction. A tilt-shift lens wouldn’t have helped much, particularly for the first two images, because of the vertical nature of some of the elements relatively close to my shooting position.

      What tilt on a T-S lens (or true tilt, on a view camera) does is tilt (hence the name) the depth of field range like a parallelogram, seeming to stretch it closer to infinity at levels at or close to the height of the camera. But that effectively shrinks the depth of field window for tall objects (like trees). T-S might have worked for the third image. But, regardless, I don’t currently own a tilt-shift lens.

  3. This is a great post. Even in close up compositions it is important to have that foreground element. all your examples do a great job of balancing the photo, and the 3rd one does a wonderful job of framing the scene.

    • Thanks very much!

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