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The best way to explain is with an example, so here’s a photo that I created with a 14mm lens on my Fujifilm X-T1 camera.
The use of a wide-angle lens gives the photo the following characteristics.
1. Front to back sharpness. Everything is sharp, from the jetty close to the camera to the lighthouse in the distance.
2. There is a visual relationship between the foreground and the background. The eye goes from the jetty through the frame to the lighthouse on the horizon.
3. Perspective. Wide-angle lenses make objects in the foreground look larger than they really are, and things in the distance appear further away. This increases the sense of space and depth.
In relation to composition, wide-angle lenses let you include something interesting in the foreground for the viewer to look at, that connects the foreground with the rest of the scene by giving the eye a path into the frame.
Sky vs foreground
The next two photos show two ways to compose a scene with the same 14mm lens.
The difference is in the framing. The first photo includes more sky than sand. The horizon is closer to the bottom of the frame than the top.
The second photo was taken with the camera tilted down to include more of the beach, pushing the horizon towards the top of the frame. The sand adds texture to the foreground and helps move the eye through the photo from the front to the back, creating a greater sense of depth and space.
Which is more interesting, the sky or the foreground? This is a question you should always ask yourself when making landscape photos. The answer may make a big difference to how you compose the photo.
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Foreground interest and framing
The next photo, taken with an 18mm lens, shows how the foreground can act as a frame. The rock in the distance is an interesting and unusual shape, but is quite small. The cliffs on either side and the plants in the foreground create a frame around it.
The plants also add an extra layer of interest and show depth. I’ve cropped the photo to include more sky and show you how it would look without the foliage in the foreground. It’s still interesting, but taking away the foreground interest reduces the sense of depth.
Foreground interest with longer focal lengths
It isn’t always possible to include foreground interest with longer focal lengths. The magnifying effect (when compared to a wide-angle lens used from the same viewpoint) means you often can’t include much foreground interest.
This photo was taken with a 56mm lens from the same position as the first one in the article. There is no foreground interest, and it lacks the sense of depth of the earlier image.
But here’s an example where it was possible. The textures in this study, created with a 35mm lens (a normal focal length rather than a wide-angle on my Fujifilm X-T1) are what make it work as a black and white landscape. I included the flowers at the bottom to make the composition more interesting.
Here’s a cropped version so you can see what it looks like without the flowers. The textures in the photo are still interesting, but the extra layer of interest created by the white flowers has gone.
Photos without foreground interest
It’s normally fairly easy to include foreground interest in a landscape photo when using wide-angle lenses because you can stop down and get the entire scene in focus.
But that doesn’t mean you have to include foreground interest. Sometimes it’s not possible, as this photo shows. It was taken with an 18mm lens, from a high viewpoint on top of a cliff looking down. The composition is built on interesting shapes and textures that pull the eye around the image, and the lack of foreground interest isn’t important.
I hope this article helps you understand how landscape photographers use foreground interest to improve the composition of their photos. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments.