Foregrounds in Landscape Photos: The Micro-Landscape Can Enhance your Panoramas

The idea of a landscape photograph may suggest a sweeping panoramic view towards a distant horizon. But an interesting foreground is at least as important to the composition as the early morning light and shade on the far away mountains.

With the wide angle lens that you will usually use for your landscape shots, think of the foreground as the lowest horizontal third of the frame, starting just two or three meters in front of the camera. At that distance the well-focused, tiny details of the landscape – grass, reeds, leaves, flowers, shells, pebbles or rocks – can make a good foundation for the whole picture.

A Foreground Point of Interest

The main point of interest in your foreground may be man-made rather than natural, perhaps a lichen-encrusted dry stone wall, a weather-beaten shed or an old wooden boat. And it might occupy the left or right third of the frame rather than the lower third, perhaps a skeletal tree or a line of fence posts diminishing towards the centre of the shot.

Foregrounds that look like barriers usually don’t work well. A wall that doesn’t fit smoothly with whatever lies beyond it, or an abrupt cliff edge against a distant mountain or cloudscape, can create a sense of separation and an unsettling feeling that the viewer is missing something and wants to peek over the top to see whatever is hidden.

But the picture will only work if those foreground details are absolutely pin sharp, so you will usually want the widest depth of field that your equipment can manage and a very steady camera.

Calculate the Hyperfocal Distance

For the best depth of field you will need to know the hyper-focal distance for the shot, meaning the distance at which you should focus to maximise the depth of field, and from that the near-focus and far-focus distances. These are the formulae, with all distance measurements in millimetres:

  • Hyperfocal distance ((f*f)/(N*c))+f
  • Near focus distance (s(H-f))/(H+s-2f)
  • Far focus distance (s(H-f))/(H-s)
  • H Hyperfocal distance, mm
  • f Lens focal length, mm
  • s Distance to subject (focus distance), mm
  • N f-number
  • c circle of confusion, mm

The circle of confusion is the size of an optical spot that can be considered an acceptably sharp focus; the value is specific to each camera model but is usually about .02 or .03 mm.

A good approach is to use the formulae to build a spreadsheet with a range of f-values and focus distances suited to your equipment and needs, and keep the printed tables in your camera bag for easy reference.

Use a Tripod

For shots like these you will usually use a small aperture. That will often mean a slow shutter speed, particularly during the hour or so around dawn and sunset when the light is at its best for landscape photography. But in any case it is always best to use a tripod and a remote shutter release to reduce the risk of shaking the camera. Even then you might not see the blur from camera shake on your camera’s little LCD screen, so take two or three shots for insurance.

To round off the shoot, those foreground details can make fine pictures in themselves. When you have done your scenic views, keep the camera on its tripod and take a few close-up shots of interesting natural landscape patterns like wild flowers, the bark of a tree or the grain of the rocks. Pictures like these can complete a satisfying portfolio for that location.