Improve Your Composition With This One Simple Change

Improve Your Composition With This One Simple Change

When it comes to taking a great photo, many photographers argue that it starts and ends with great composition. I’m not sure I’m so black and white in my outlook, but good composition is hugely important without a doubt. And one of the most overlooked parts of great composition is adding foreground interest. Today I will discuss how foreground interest in your photos can really improve your end results, and what you can do to nail the foreground every time.

What is Foreground Interest?

As the name suggests, foreground interest simply adds something in the foreground of your shot that might not be the focal point but adds balance and symmetry and interest to the frame. Depending on the type of photography you're doing, then it might not be relevant, but if you're shooting nature or landscapes in particular, then it's definitely something you should try to improve with your photography.

Very often when you take a photo you put the subject in the top third of the frame, especially if you’re using the rule of thirds. If that’s the case then you want to put something in the bottom third of the frame to add some interest, but not something so strong that it takes the focus away from your subject.

That’s why there is definitely a technique and a necessary thought process involved in adding foreground interest. So let’s take a look at some examples so you can better see how foreground interest can add to a photo or even take away from a photo.

Adding Foreground Interest For Balance

In this shot above at a Japanese garden near home, my subject and focal point were the colorful trees blooming during the Fall season. There is a lovely mix of reds and oranges and yellows and greens, and I wanted to capture and display them in the shot.

I also wanted to use the wooden fencing as a kind of divider in the frame, which meant I needed something in the bottom third. So I walked around the pond until I found these two rocks, which were perfect.

The reason that I say they’re perfect is that they’re not so big and offensive that they become the main focal point and confuse the viewer about what the subject actually is, but they’re not so small that they become nothing more than unnecessary distractions.

They add balance to the photo and don’t leave unnecessary space. Negative space can often a good thing but in this case, I didn’t feel so. You can see what the photo would have looked like without the rocks below and be the judge.

Adding Foreground Interest - Size Matters

Another thing to consider when you’re adding foreground interest is the actual size of the element you want to use. I said above that the two rocks weren’t so small that they became unnecessary distractions - this can often happen if your foreground interest is too small.

If your foreground elements are too small they tend to annoy the viewer more than anything and take away the focus from your subject.

For some reason, the human eye seems to be drawn to distractions and adding foreground interests that are small and don’t really give any strength to the composition will only take away from your subject, which is what you never want to do. You can see what I mean in the photo below.

In this shot here at a gorgeous beach near home, I woke up early to catch the sunrise. The sun is obviously the subject here because it was giving off an incredible pinkish, orange glow as it rose above the horizon.

But in the shot above (which I have edited for the purposes of this article) the eye continues to focus on that pesky little rock in the bottom left corner, doesn’t it?

It’s like a pimple on the end of someone’s nose, or a little bit of rice inadvertently stuck on someone’s chin. No matter how incredibly beautiful the face might be that you’re looking at, you can’t help zoning in on that pimple or that little bit of rice.

It’s the same when your foreground elements are too small - the eye keeps coming back to them and losing focus on the real subject. In that case, you're best off just cropping them out, or finding another foreground element to use that's better sized.

You can see the original photo below to see exactly how big the rock that I used actually was.

You can see that the rock I’ve used is not so big that it takes all of your attention but it’s not so small that it becomes annoying. Further, I’ve placed it towards the bottom left corner because the human eye likes to travel up from the bottom left.

By placing it here I’m leading the eye from the bottom of the frame and up to the top, as well as from left to right so that the eye travels through the frame and up to the subject. Your job as a photographer is always to try and make the viewer take in the whole scene, and by positioning the rock here I think I’ve done that.

Position, Position, Position!

As I alluded to above, the position of your foreground interest is also extremely important. Ideally, you want to place it in a part of the frame that leads the viewer’s eye up to the subject, especially if it’s a single, stand-alone element as in the rock above.

Typically, I always start from the bottom left when I’m looking at composition and then make my decisions from there. It’s not a hard and fast, black-and-white rule that your foreground element should be in the bottom left corner - it’s not that simple and there are things like symmetry and balance to think about.

But placing your foreground elements towards the bottom left corner is often a good starting point and gives you a good base to work from.

Again, for the purpose of this article, I have done some liberal editing, but you can see how position does have a great impact on the strength of composition by looking at the photo below.

There, I have moved the rock over to the far right side of the frame and the photo is now nowhere near as good as the original. The rock, if anything, becomes a distraction.

When I look at this photo my eye keeps going away from the rising sun and focusing on that misplaced rock. Definitely not what you want your viewer to be doing!

Improving Your Composition With Foreground Interest - Key Takeaways

If you’re shooting out in nature or taking landscape photos and you’re placing your subject in the top third of the frame somewhere, then adding foreground elements very often strengthens your composition.

They add balance and symmetry to the frame and also allow the viewer to take in the whole scene, rather than automatically going to the subject and focusing wholly and solely on that.

Three things you can always think about when you’re considering whether to add foreground elements or not are:

  1. Do they balance the scene?
  2. Are they the right size?
  3. Are they in the right position in relation to the subject?

If the answer is yes to all three of those then, by all means, add foreground interest to your composition and you'll improve it greatly.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and perhaps even upload some photos with some examples of foreground elements you’ve used. I look forward to seeing them and getting some feedback from you.

And if you think this article might help friends or family members become better photographers then please share it on your preferred social media platform.

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imagei _'s picture

This is obviously a matter of taste but for me all those examples could be summarised with one word: clutter. Each example without the foreground elements is better in my opinion. I would even prefer the first beach picture without that small stone in the corner ;-)

That said, I have seen and appreciated photos that were putting elements in the foreground but they were framed so that these were an inherent part of the idea behind the composition, not merely a filler that 'simply adds something in the foreground'.

Ken Hunt's picture

You are absolutely right. Particularly the first pair of pictures with those ugly rocks in the water.

Iain Stanley's picture

Fair point. I always take photos with and without foreground elements and make a decision based on what I see and feel at the time. The great thing about photography is that it’s always open for debate - I deliberately used the Japanese Garden shot because I thought many might like it without the rocks. This shot has been a strong seller for me so opinion is obviously divided. Which is great!

Lucas Fernandez's picture

The correct option in the garden would be to wait for calmer conditions and better light and use the reflection to create a foreground on the water. At the beach I would have looked for tide pools or at least a more dynamic section of beach if I wanted to include a foreground, as opposed to one rock that throws off the image no matter where you put it 🤷

Iain Stanley's picture

The ‘correct’ option? Haha obviously you’ve never been to this garden, which sits very close to a very windy coast and is very very rarely ‘calm’.

Mark Gotchall's picture

Want a good reflection in windy conditions? That is what they make 6 or 10 stop ND filters for. You may have to blend the image to get the foliage still, but the reflection would be great.

AND, you did make some good points in the article.

Iain Stanley's picture

Thanks for the tip Mark. I do love my Lee Big Stopper but I haven’t explored much with reflections specifically in mind. Great advice!

Megs Maquito's picture

I love the position, position, position part! In the second photo I found myself looking at the rock and the piece of land on the right. Thanks for this.

Iain Stanley's picture

Great! Hope you remember some things here next time you’re composing a photo :)

Uwe Neugebauer's picture

I truly believe that there are a lot of those "hidden" rules behind successful images. It might be interesting how these rules change over time and are e.g. influenced by sozial trends. Maybe those AI generated images ( use parameters like these already.