4 Ways to Manipulate the Foreground and Background in a Landscape Photo

4 Ways to Manipulate the Foreground and Background in a Landscape Photo

If you combine foreground and background in a landscape photo, the two must work together. There are four ways to manipulate the relationship between the foreground and background. You just have to use depth of field, distance, and focal length in the best possible way.

In my last article, I wrote about the six pillars of landscape photography. By using these six pillars, you are able to make your landscape photo more interesting to look at. If you haven’t read it, you might want to check it out.

The last pillar I mentioned covers the relationship between foreground and background. I find it one of the most creative ways of building a good landscape photo. As mentioned in that article, that last pillar is a combination of four ways to manipulate the relationship between foreground and background.

Chose your focal length, distance, and depth of field to achieve the best possible relationship between foreground and background.

It wouldn’t surprise me if you have used these four methods already, but perhaps you’ve done so without being aware of it. I believe this awareness can help you in achieving a better way of creating a more pleasing landscape photo. And it is all done by using your lens in the best possible way.

1. The Use of Depth of Field

I think the depth of field is the most important tool of a photographer. By choosing the depth of field very consciously, it is possible to give your photo a unique appearance. A shallow depth of field is used a lot in portrait and model photography. This is also possible with landscape photography.

Most landscape photos are shot with the largest depth of field possible. Everything has to be in focus. Hyperfocal distances are used, focus stacking is employed, and some even use the tilt function of a tilt-shift lens. But I believe a small depth of field is also very effective for shooting landscapes.

A small depth of field can be used to isolate the subject from the background. The background is still present, but it won't get too much attention. With a subtle depth of field, it is possible to give your landscape photo a wonderful 3D effect.

In the before/after images, I used a wide aperture to isolate the buttercup from the background. Now it stands out, without losing the background and sense of the landscape.

2. The Use of Focal Length

Many landscape photos are shot with a wide angle lens or even an extreme wide angle lens. It enables you to capture as much as possible. But that is not always the best choice. Sometimes, you need to focus a bit more on your subject.

If you are using zoom lenses, you have a large amount of focal lengths at your disposal. Why limit yourself to just the shortest focal length? Don’t be afraid to zoom in. You can eliminate everything in the landscape that doesn’t add value to your composition. By using a longer focal length, it is also possible to focus attention on the colors at the horizon during a sunrise or sunset. Or you can zoom in on interesting subjects, making details visible. 

If the reach of your focal length is not enough, you can crop your image in post-processing. You will get the same result as zooming in. It also gives the user of primes the ability to get in between available focal lengths. Especially with the high-megapixel cameras of today, you won’t lose too much resolution.

Don't use a wide angle exclusively in landscape photography. In the before/after images, I have used a longer focal length to remove all distracting elements. 

3. The Use of Field of View

At first sight, this third method seems the same as focal length, but it isn't. To put it simply, the field of view is about manipulating the amount of background in your landscape photo.

The field of view determines the amount of background that will appear in your composition. A large field of view shows a lot, and a small field of view will show less. But if less will be shown, it has to be larger to cover the frame. Because a smaller field of view also has an effect on the foreground, you need to step back in order to keep the foreground the same size.

By changing your distance to the foreground and choosing the field of view for the background, you are able to play with the relative size between the two elements in your frame. The example below shows the differences between 24mm at a two-meter distance to the foreground and 50mm at a four-meter distance to the foreground. The tree trunk has the same size, but the background is different in size.

In the before/after images, I used a longer focal length to narrow the field of view. At the same time, I stepped back to keep the foreground element the same size. This way, I can manipulate the size of the background while keeping the foreground the same size.

4. The Distance To the Foreground

This last method is closely related to the previous one. The distance to the subject allows you to manipulate the size of the subject compared to the background. To put is simply, choose your focal length depending on the amount and size of the background you want to have. Next, get close to the subject in the foreground until it is the size you want it to be.

This works best if the distance to the background is much larger than the distance to the foreground. If the difference in distances is small, the effect is negligible. But if the background is almost on the horizon, changing the distance to the subject won’t affect the amount of background in the frame at all.

In the before/after images, I chose the size of the background with my focal length (field of view) fixed. Next, I changed the distance to the foreground until the elements became the size I wanted. Because I didn't change the field of view, the background did not change.

Combine These Four if Possible

Although I divided the way you can manipulate the relationship between foreground and background into four methods, they are closely related to each other. For instance, the depth of field is influenced by focal length and distance to your subject. Focal length and field of view are also linked to each other.

That is why you can (and will) use more than one of these four methods at the same time to achieve the best possible relationship between foreground and background. It also allows you to get different results at one location, just by making a completely different choice in focal length, position, and depth of field. You should try it out.

Do you use these four methods of manipulating the relationship between foreground and background yourself? Is this a conscious choice, or do you use these methods without being aware of them? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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I prefer landscapes with animals, or people in it for perspective.