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Picture This

Our chief photographer shares his insights.

By Earl Nottingham

A little forethought into your foreground will pay off.

It's unfortunate that in a three-dimensional universe, the photographer has always been limited to a two-dimensional world of horizontal and vertical when trying to replicate or interpret a scene - a limitation dictated by the flat nature of canvas, films, papers and pixels. At best, a painting or photograph can create only a shallow approximation of the reality, and beauty, of the natural world.

Lacking that vital third dimension of depth in their media, artists over the centuries learned how to imply depth in their compositions through the use of perspective by giving the viewer visual clues that create suggestions of dimension, scale and space; all of which help give an illusion of reality.

For the photographer, one of the easiest ways to add apparent depth in an image is to include a distinct foreground object in the photograph. This creates a separate visual plane that distinguishes the background from the foreground and allows the viewer's eye to travel back and forth within the image; imparting a sense of space. Common foreground items include flowers, trees, outcroppings, hillsides or people; in other words, anything that stands between you and the overall background. I'm a sucker for the ancient tree stump clinging precariously to the hillside with a beautiful vista behind it. The key is to find naturally occurring objects that will complement the scene, adding to the overall "story" of the photo without creating a distraction. It also applies to subjects of all sizes. For instance, if photographing a toad, a toadstool could be placed in the foreground, framing the subject. A butterfly could be viewed with a leaf or twig in the foreground. Sometimes it's just a matter of moving the camera position an inch or two to find a suitable object. At other times, you might need to do a little footwork.

When shooting landscapes, one way to help "force" the foreground is to compose the image vertically. This allows you to include more near-ground space at the bottom of the composition in which to place closer or smaller objects, sometimes to within several inches of the lens. Be careful, however, to ensure enough depth-of-field in the scene by using a small lens aperture, generally around f/16 to f/22. Otherwise, your foreground will be blurry while the background is sharp - or vice versa. While a wide-angle lens will increase the apparent depth of field, it can make your background look too far away. A zoom wide-angle will help you find the happy medium.

Once you start visualizing a scene in terms of foreground, background and even middleground layers, your images will take on a whole new look. Be prepared to hear comments like, "I felt as if I were there" or "I can almost reach out and touch it." At that point, you'll know that you've mastered the art of creating depth.

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