When it comes to composition, paying attention to the function of your foreground and background can be crucial to creating a great image. The human eye can distinguish between different elements and determine depth in a scene. Your camera, however, flattens the background and foreground; a photograph is a 2D version of the 3D reality you see. This flattening of space is one reason foreground and background elements can become distracting in a photograph. For exactly this reason, it’s essential to work the foreground and background so they enhance your composition and serve your final image.
When composing an image, you—the photographer—should consider what is in front of your subject: are there lines taking your eye away from the subject? Are there colors that complement or contrast with the subject? Could the image elements be used to better frame the subject? Is there negative space that adds to or reinforces the image?
Foreground can be used to put your subject into context. This is often the job of the background, but you can sometimes use the foreground to add to the scene and highlight the subject. Taking a step back to include more of the foreground might help enhance the subject and its environment.
Photographs © Sarita Ashkenazy
A common use of the foreground is to lead the eye toward the subject with a compositional device called “leading lines.” This technique can involve something as simple as a winding road or railway tracks. Whatever you choose, use foreground lines to your advantage in a scene, and watch out for excess foreground activity that might distract or confuse the viewer.
You can also use contrast to your advantage in the foreground of an image. A dark foreground can help to frame the subject and lead the viewer into the scene. When the foreground is darker than the main point of interest or has rich colors or tones, it can draw the viewer’s attention and make the subject pop. Yet, keep in mind that too much contrast between the foreground and subject can be distracting or have the opposite effect—overpowering the subject.
If you don’t want to distract from your subject, and the foreground can't add contrast, context or lead your eye, then the foreground elements might be used to frame your subject. Consider an example such as a leafy tree surrounding a bird perched on a branch. By opening your lens to a wide aperture, you can effectively blur the foreground and frame your subject with shallow depth of field—using bokeh to enhance the subject.
Now, let's talk backgrounds. No, not the backdrops you hang in your studio. A key to using the background wisely is to remember that you shouldn’t simply concentrate on your subject; you also need to pay attention to what’s going on behind it.
Choose your background carefully. Check, check, and check again. If you aren’t completely happy with your current framing options, a change of viewpoint can give you a different perspective on the scene. Changing your angles might help you get rid of distracting elements. Try aiming the camera from waist level, or get down on the ground and try shooting the scene from that angle. Changing your viewpoint might allow you to place the subject in an entirely new world.
Just as with the foreground, you might want to avoid lines that compete with the subject. Avoid the oft-dreaded Martian antennae poking out of your subject’s head—be conscious of the different elements in your background that can distract from your subject: a street sign, a tree, or wires. Beware of a horizon line running through someone’s head as if their ears were some sort of tunnel. You can also try using shallow depth of field to blur the background, effectively eliminating unwanted elements.
Be conscious of merging colors and textures. You might want to avoid taking a picture of your subject in a red shirt when there is a bouquet of red balloons right behind his or her shoulder. With like colors or tonalities, you risk not having much of a separation between the subject and background elements. You may have seen images in which people unintentionally match their surroundings; you probably don’t want your subject blending into the background like a chameleon—or maybe you do!
When it comes to composition, remember to be mindful. Not paying attention to the foreground and background elements of a scene can lead to unwanted surprises when reviewing images after the fact—when it might be too late. Composition is about practice and a lot of attentiveness. Be conscious of compositional lines. Be aware of the colors, tones, and textures framing the subject. Be mindful of what makes up the foreground, and watch your background for distracting elements.