Foreground in photography is most often discussed in relation to landscape photography, but it’s equally important in portrait photography. When you use foreground intentionally you set the scene, add context to the subject and draw the viewer into the photo and towards the subject.
Most photos have a foreground, middle ground and background. In portrait photography a lot of emphasis is placed on the background, especially for achieving a blurry background, without much thought for the foreground. This is a mistake – it’s a lost opportunity to make a photo more dynamic!
So below I’ll show you 4 really easy foreground techniques for much more interesting photography composition.
But first, let’s explore what exactly is the foreground in photos and why it’s important.
What is foreground middle ground and background in photography?
The first thing to note is that not every photograph has a foreground, middle ground and background.
Before we get into that, let’s first quickly cover what exactly is a foreground, middle ground and background – known as the grounds of a photo.
The background is blurred, the subject in the middle ground is sharp and the vegetation on the right in the foreground is also out of focus and directs attention to the subject.
What is background?
I’ll start with the one we all know – background.
The background in a portrait photo is the area behind the main subject and is usually out of focus, sometimes very blurry.
Further reading: 5 background photography tips for better photos
What is the middle ground?
I know this is stating the obvious, but for the sake of clarity… the middle ground in a photo is the area between the background and the foreground. It’s usually the part we focus on.
In portrait photography the middle ground is very often the subject.
What is the foreground in a photo?
So, that leaves us with the rest of the photo – the foreground, which is the area in front of the subject. In other words the area between the photographer and subject that’s included in the photo.
Most of the time the foreground is also out of focus.
On the left the father and son are playing and while it’s a nice moment, I feel that the photo on the right is much more dynamic, because the daughter ran into shot. It adds to the excited, fun feel.
Why exclude or include the foreground in a photo?
There are a number of reason for including the foreground in a photo, but only if it adds to the photo in some way. The most important rule of photography composition is to include only what’s necessary in a photo and exclude anything that doesn’t benefit the composition or story.
This is the main reason that foreground is not always included in a photo. You don’t always need it and sometimes, like when the foreground is ugly, you actively work to avoid it.
If your subject is standing on scrappy looking grass, you won’t want to include that in the photo, unless it’s relevant to the story. So, instead of taking a full body portrait, you might get in closer for a three quarter length photo and so avoid the scrappy grass in the foreground.
You might exclude both foreground and background by getting in really close and filling the frame with the subject.
Very often, however, including foreground elements in a portrait photo adds:
- Interest – to draw the viewer into the image towards the subject
- Context – to tell the viewer something about the subject and to add to the story
- Depth – to make a photo feel more three dimensional
- Unity – to tie an image together
More on how to do this in a moment.
Including the confetti in the foreground places the viewer in the moment and adds depth.
What is a foreground element?
In portrait photography a foreground element is anything you include in a photo between the photographer and the subject, such as:
- A coffee cup
Of course, there’s more to foreground photography than just slapping something in front of the subject for no good reason and expecting the photo to look better. The key is how you intentionally use foreground elements in photos.
4 ways to use foreground in photography
As we’re photographers, I’ll show you foreground photography examples to demonstrate the techniques that improve foreground composition, specifically:
- Leading lines
The elephant is the subject, highlighted by the out of focus foreground framing of the hide and my fella watching the elephant.
1. Foreground framing
This is a great composition technique for highlighting the subject of the photo while also including a bit of context to tell the viewer what the photo is about.
Both photos show how foreground composition can be used in photos for different impact. On the left the rows of strawberries bushes act as leading lines in the foreground to the little girl. By changing position and photographing her over a row of strawberries with another row behind her it creates layers and completely changes the image.
2. Foreground leading lines
I imagine leading lines are the most commonly used foreground element. And for good reason – they take the viewer deeper into the image directly to the subject and then often also behind the subject.
Leading lines create a journey through the photo, making it much more interesting.
Further reading: How to use leading lines for awesome photography composition
These two photos show just how much of an impact including foreground elements can have on an image. Below left you can see the location and below right my view from behind the flowers for the second image.
3. Create depth with a foreground layer
A photographer’s constant battle is bring the feeling of a three dimensional world to a two dimensional photo. By including foreground elements we create layers and a feeling of depth, with a foreground, middle ground and background.
Further reading: Use layers in photography composition for eye-catching photos
With lifestyle portrait photography including foreground in photos can also add to the story, but the feeling is often more intimate, because it places the viewer in the photo. It’s voyeuristic without being creepy.
Photographing a subject from a low angle and including, for example, the tips of long grass in the photo foreground makes the scenery a part of the viewing experience, just as if you were there in the grass. So the photo is a far more intimate experience than a grinning face looking at the camera.
This overlap perspective adds depth to the image, making it feel more three dimensional and therefore more like real life.
Further reading: 5 types of perspective in photography composition
4. Tie foreground to background with unity
Let’s compare a standard headshot photoshoot to a personal brand photoshoot.
Headshots are well lit, head and shoulders photos of the subject looking straight into the camera, probably with a smile. They’re all about connecting directly with the viewer. There’s no foreground included.
Personal brand photos are more pulled back shots in a carefully chosen environment with carefully selected props and the subject could be looking into the camera, or down at their work, or off into the distance. All grounds – foreground, middle ground and background – are used to the max to tell the viewer more about the subject.
The reason why so many entrepreneur’s personal brand photos feature them sitting behind a laptop is that it tells the viewer that they can work from anywhere on their laptop. They’re not tied to an office.
Add a carefully chosen coffee mug and you’re saying that they have a relaxed, friendly working style. The color of the mug will no doubt tie in with the colors they’re wearing, possibly also the notebook you see at their side and something in the background, like a bunch of flowers. They’ll reflect their brand colors.
From a photography point of view, featuring the same color elements in the foreground, middle ground and background ties the image together using the composition technique of unity, so that it doesn’t feel like a jumble of unconnected items.
A foreground photography example you’re sure to know
How many photographer’s profile photos are of them behind their camera?
In a split second the camera in the foreground tells the viewer that this is a photographer. Easy as that!
How to add an interesting foreground when there isn’t one
With a little forethought it’s very easy to add foreground elements, even if the location doesn’t offer anything worth including. Just hold something in front of the lens as foreground interest. Examples include:
Anything you can think of can be held in front of your lens for foreground interest in photos. Just remember that the closer you hold the item to the lens, the more out of focus it will be. It can be tricky to hold the camera with one hand and your prop with another, so it can really help to have somebody with you.
If you don’t have somebody to help, don’t let it stop you from getting creative. Where there’s an idea, there’s a way!
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