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FOREGROUND / BACKGROUND FLOW FOR LANDSCAPES


When doing any type of photography, whether it be birds, wildlife, close-ups or landscape, it's good to have someone who inspires you to want to do things in the manner in which they are known. You don't want to try and copy it 100% as that is not possible because their thought process is going to be a bit different than yours as well as their techniques for working with both light and composition. Still, you can study their work and pull something from their techniques and way of doing things. Who better to try and base your landscape work on than the master - Ansel Adams. It was his work that got me interested in outdoor photography. It took numerous years to grasp what it was about his work to fully understand what made his work so unique. Today, when doing landscape photography I try to let the inspiration of his work play into what I'm trying to accomplish.

What I pull from his work is how he blends the foreground and background so they are in harmony. There are times he put two images together that could stand alone but also complimented each other and times when the foreground had a seamless flow into the background.

One major component of this is based on flow - how the foreground is used to help the viewer flow to the background. There are many ways to do this but as the photographer you have to keep this in mind when composing the image. Without putting some thought into it, flow doesn't happen and there are times it's just not possible to have the continuous flow that's desired. Showing how difficult this can be, one quote from Adams sticks out in my mind regarding landscape photography: ‘Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment.’  Many times it’s disappointment but when it’s right everything comes out right it’s very rewarding.

dalton highway winter landscape
The snow-covered ice is not a straight line, but it's a line leading the eye into the image and the mountain in the background

There are several ways to create flow within a photograph. One is looking for line to help lead the viewer where you want them to go and the other is with the use of layers. Sometimes, the main subject is actually in the foreground of the shot but there still needs to be harmony with the rest of the scene so the background does not take away from the main subject but rather compliments it.

LINE - The line(s) that move the eye around the frame can be subtle or obvious. They can be man-made or part of the natural environment. It takes moving around to find where the line is in the right place for smooth transition in some settings but others it can be quite prominent. Fences or tree lines make for a very easy line to take the viewer back into the image, as do rivers or shorelines.

In the image below, if you looked at the scene from 10 steps to the left or right, the flow of the curve in the snow and that of the curves in the mountain would not line up and it might not be apparent to put the two together. Here, seeing the curve in the snow caused me to move around to find the right position so the line takes the eye from the foreground to the background.

dalton highway winter landscape

eiffel tower at night

Even though the eye goes straight to the Eiffel Tower, as it is so prominent, I moved around to find just the right spot so the multiple lines led the eye to it. There are the two sets of lights on the street, brake lights of the cars, and the lights on the bottom portion of the bridge. All off these working together help lead from front to back.

A lot of times the viewer might not know what you did to make an image more appealing, unless it's another photographer; all they know is there's something about the photo that captivates their interest. How you set the shot up to pull them to the point of interest or move smoothly throughout is what separates an ordinary shot from a really nice shot. Using the techniques learned and ideas from images you like will help drive you to create better shots each time out.

One thing to keep in mind when using line to lead the viewer back into the image is to not have it coming directly out of the corner of the frame. Having it offset a little bit creates just enough tension to not make it seem contrived. That little bit of space between the corner and the line offers an easier starting point than directly out of the corner. It's too easy to put it right in the corner. Take the time to see if it's better coming out above or to the side and maybe even do it both ways to look at it later on the computer to decide which has the best feel.

LAYERS - There are more scenes out there with layers to help move the eye from front to back than you imagine. Again, some are quite obvious and you can't help but see the layers in the photo whether they be colors, lines, or conditions, but you know what is at play in the image. This foggy morning scene on the Blue Ridge Parkway fully speaks about layers due to the hazy conditions. You can easily see each layer stepping back through the shot by the different tonal values along with all of the lines. The only thing I had to concern myself with in the composition was finding an anchor point from which the viewer could first connect with to begin moving back. While a shot of the misty mountains could work, I liked having the darkness of the closest ridge to create a starting point. It helps with the subsequent gradations of the tones the further back into the image the eye goes.

misty mountain landscape

In this shot from Oxbow Bend in the Tetons, the layers might not seem like the overwhelming concept of the image but they are. While there is a bit of ground to the bottom right of the frame for an anchor point, the first real layer is the water, followed by the line of trees, then the mountains and finally the pink sky of the Earth's shadow just before sunrise. The contrasting colors between each layer along with different textures help walk the viewer back through the composition. While this doesn't exactly have the two major foreground / background elements of many Ansel Adams shots, it does bring into play the thought process of having the front connect with the back in some manner as the eye moves smoothly throughout instead of jumping around. With Mount Moran being a main focal point in the composition and it's easy for the eye to go right there, everything else in the image supports it and does not pull the eye away as a distracting element.

One thing to keep in mind is the eye is going to tend to go where there is major contrast between two subjects. You hear that a bright spot in a photo will pull the eye away from the main subject and is a distraction, but really that bright spot usually contrasts highly with something next to it. Keep the contrast idea in mind with regards to colors as well. Let the colors and the tones work nicely together, such as with the mountain ridges and the Oxbow Bend shot. There is a natural progression in values and not a lot of stark changes back and forth.

The final example shows layers can be made from the same subject, trees, as long as there is something that separates different sections. These aspens have a variety of color groupings to them with greens up front followed by yellow and lime as the leaves are in transition during the fall. The pines provide a transition leading up to the mountains and then the crisp blue sky right after sunrise. Where does your eye go first in this shot? Think about what was just mentioned regarding the eye going to the most contrasty area first. Even if the eye goes to the back first, it can then come back and move from the front to back based on the flow, especially one that has somewhat of a stepladder effect.

Looking through the viewfinder, think about what all is included and how the different elements work together to make an appealing photo. With landscapes, there is plenty of time to make it right as it's more important to get one really nice shot than just a bunch of shots and hoping one of the different compositions is one you like. If the light isn't quite right when first showing up at a spot, the composition can be worked on to get it right and then wait for the right light to showcase the scene. Light is very important for a landscape shot. This refers to both the direction of light as well as the quality of light.

While Adams didn't take as many shots as we do today with our digital medium, I imagine he threw away his fair share of negatives and I know he spent a good bit of time setting up all of the shots we look at today and marvel at their beauty. While I like to try and use some of his thought process in much of my landscape work, I know I'll never be compared to him and his work but I can still use him as an inspiration. So can you. Or you might have someone else you can look to whose work you like and you want to try and emulate their style or technique.

oxbow bend sunrise earth shadow


crested butte fall color