When composing a shot, consider that even a marginally strong foreground object will anchor your viewer to the scene. While we will discuss this technique in relation to landscape shooting, it is also very much part of portrait shooting as well.
This image is of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. I took it while on a road trip a couple years ago. Since we were driving by in the middle of the day, I had to deal with the harsh midday sun complete with sharp, harsh shadows. There was also little interest in the sky with no clouds. Stepping out of the car, I took this image which certainly represents what I saw, midday big tower not a whole lot more. However, I wandered around the tower and moved forward and back just a few steps and came across a position under a tree which would allow me to use the close branches to naturally frame my subject. This also changed the way the camera metered the scene as I was using evaluative metering which tells the camera to strive for an evenly lit image when shooting. If I was not worried about getting a little light into the leaves, I would have set the camera to spot metering so that the subject (the tower) was the only object exposed correctly.
Sometimes, you can’t control when you will have the opportunity to shoot a subject, I would have rather waited for clouds and a nice evening or sunrise sky to really bring out all of the nuances of the tower. I think the framing brings more interest into the flat sky by adding the leaves.
This second example was taken in Yellowstone National Park (west entrance area). I framed the image close enough to focus on the downed tree in the river as a primary or dominant object in the image, while using the lines of the river to draw the viewers eye to the tree. I purposely decided to not go wide enough on this composition as the blue sky at the top of the mountain in the far background was distracting and taking focus away from what I considered the primary subject matter. Sometimes adding in a strong foreground object can drastically change the intent of the photo. In this second example I adjusted my lens a bit wider and stood a couple steps back so that the edge of the tree next to me was in the frame. In an effort to keep the same dominant subject (the tree in the river) I adjusted my composition so that the bare limb of the tree next to me actually appeared to point to the tree in the river. I also as in the first shot intentionally kept the top of the back mountain out of the frame. In this case, I personally feel that the image is a bit too busy. While I like the added grounding of the tree framing the scene, any more of it in the frame, and the tree next to me would have become the primary subject for me, even as it is now it is rivaling the originally intended primary subject. I do like the lines of the river in this image more than I do in the first shot.
So which one do I prefer? Which one would I show to people? Which one would make it into my portfolio? In both cases, neither. I would use the Devil’s Tower image as a snapshot vacation photo it is not artistic enough for me. Second, the tree just still doesn’t meet my criteria for a showable or final image. The time of the day was much better in this shot, it was evening starting to get close to the golden hour but not quite there.
The take-away from this article should be try and use the object around you to frame the image you are shooting. You might like it, you might not. When shooting something that is close in the foreground while keeping the background image in focus, make sure to shoot with a smaller (11, 16, 22) aperture if possible.
Take a walk, and shoot a subject with and without a framing foreground object. The more you shoot intentionally framing your subjects, the more you will learn to add the right amount of framing into a scene without taking too much away from your primary subject. Consider this technique with portraits. Take a shot of your subject with and without framing. Consider that framing can be as simple as having your subject lean against a podium or fence.
Get out there and take some pictures!