There are lots of different technical skills that can be applied in landscape photography to improve the look and feel of an image: one of those skills is using Foreground Objects (FG-Objects) in your composition. FG-Objects give your eye a place to start when you first look at a landscape image, it leads your eye to the main subject. Using this composition element has other advantages as well.
First, FG-Objects are a critical point of focus. You focus on them and then use the principles of hyperfocal distance (to achieve maximum depth-of-field, or DOF) and f-stop selection to make sure the rest of the image falls into effective sharpness. You don’t focus on the subject (which is farther away than the FG-Object) then apply an f-stop that brings the DOF back to the FG-Object, that would only result in a less than tack sharp FG-Object. One way to improve the overall apparent sharpness of an image is to have a tack sharp FG-Object as a compositional element of the image.
Second, FG-Objects are an important element in balancing the look and feel of a landscape image. They give three-dimensionality to an otherwise two-dimensional image. When an image doesn’t have a FG-Object the sense of depth is reduced. Now, sometimes that isn’t all bad – some landscapes are impossible to shoot with a FG-Object given the space, location, or some other mitigating factor.
Most of us shoot two different kinds of landscape images: portrait landscapes – where our subject is more isolated from the surrounding environment, and environmental landscapes – where our main subject is placed within its surrounding environment. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, just different ways of looking at the same subject.
In this image my silhouetted FG-Object serves as a counterpoint to the bright hues of the sunset and a textural counterpoint to the smoothness of the sky. Also, the FG-Object gives a sense of place to an otherwise unidentifiable location and sunset. The Joshua Tree is a desert southwest species that ranges from southern California through southern Nevada, southern Utah, and south into Arizona.
In the image at right, I used the fence rail as my FG-Object point-of-focus, adjusted my distance to the rail for the correct hyperfocal distance for F16, then exposed the image knowing that the main subject – the barn – would be within the DOF. As is my practice, I also applied some selective sharpness and contrast control to the barn.
So, using FG-Objects in your landscape composition improves both the apparent sharpness of the image, and serves to balance the composition and lead your eye to the main subject.
Finding FG-Objects is not always easy, or practical at times. Sometimes branches leaning into frame can suffice, other times less strong objects will have to be used. In this final image, below, my FG-Object is pretty weak graphically – just some windblown sand ridges, but still serves to lead the eye into the image and adding to the apparent sharpness of the shot.