A common challenge for photographers using wide-angle lenses is creating depth in their images. The shots may seem flat and dull if they do not have a distinct point of interest and a clear visual path that draws the viewer’s eye into the scene.
One of the most effective techniques for adding visual depth to your photographs is to incorporate a compelling foreground element.
So in this article, what I’m going to do is guide you through the process I adopted to compose the image below, analyzing some common mistakes people make when using a wide-angle lens.
The wide-angle lens is something that many of you may have used before, or you might be new to it, and it’s exciting to see the world from such a unique perspective and to take in this grand view.
This is a broad topic. However, to enhance your compositions and create compelling images, it’s essential to keep a few basic guidelines in mind.
I want to focus specifically on one crucial aspect: how to optimize foreground framing to improve depth and create a strong relationship between the foreground and background.
Before going into this discussion, composition-wise, everyone has their own preferences when it comes to what looks good in a photo. What I’m going to share are some ideas that have helped me, but they’re not strict rules. They’re just things you might find useful to think about when you’re taking your own photos.
Analyzing the Scene
Last October, I was in the Italian Dolomites, in Tre Cime Natural Park, with my workshop group, studying the scene below and getting prepared for the sunset.
From that position, you have a ton of options. You can focus on the three famous peaks, frame the entire panorama of the valley, or capture the beautiful Monte Paterno – you name it.
Here are a couple of simple snapshots of the area pointing toward the south.
The sun would have set right about on the right side of the frame, but as you can see, there were quite thick low clouds to the west, making it unlikely to have some dynamic direct light on the Tre Cime.
However, if we look at this other image, on the Monte Paterno, the light was pretty good. So, we decided to change the plan and focus our attention on it.
Now, at this point, we need to find a nice foreground that invites the viewer into the scene. With the camera handheld, I started to explore the area, trying to frame some rocks that could work as leading lines.
Working the Scene: Composition #1
Let’s start with the first example of ‘compositional failure’. This brings us to a common mistake I see quite often, and that’s having a too-busy foreground.
I began exploring the area, snapping some handheld shots to figure out a nice spot to place the tripod.
A lot is going on in the lower half of the frame, and even though we can identify some leading lines pointing toward the mountain, the foreground is very chaotic.
Additionally, the light doesn’t cooperate well. The transition between the close foreground and the background is not organic; the light is very harsh. The subject is much darker than the foreground, which is the opposite of what I wanted.
So, I don’t think this framing is the best option for this type of scene.
As you can see, I decided to use the vertical orientation. This choice usually depends on what you want to keep in and out of the frame and also on emphasizing the nature of the subject you want to photograph.
In this case, I wanted to isolate Monte Paterno, excluding neighboring elements and taking advantage of the distortion of the wide-angle lens. It stretched the height of the peak, making it more pronounced and magnifying the elements close to the lens, expanding the overall view.
Using a portrait format will also help create depth because an upright arrangement encourages the eye to scan an image vertically, traveling from foreground to horizon.
Pro tip: I always highly recommend experimenting with both orientations when you’re in the field. There is usually no right or wrong answer; it simply depends on the subject and the feeling you choose to convey. Lines, shapes, and forms all change their appearance when the camera is turned from a horizontal to a vertical position.
Working the Scene: Composition #2
Let’s move to another composition and see the progression of my studying the scene.
Here, I tried to include a different element as a foreground, but again, it didn’t work. The tree competes too much with the peak in the background, grabbing all the attention and creating a sort of blind spot in the image.
Placed in this front position, it literally blocks the view of the middle ground, and that’s not good. It makes the image lose its flow and strength.
What we want is to keep the viewer’s eye moving and interested, right?
So, you have to make sure every part of your image is clear and easy to see. No obstacles, no distractions, just a smooth and engaging visual journey.
Then, the overall arrangement of the elements is very unbalanced. The close foreground is quite messy with these scattered rocks badly arranged that don’t really help in creating a proper visual entry point that draws the viewer into the scene.
Another significant problem here, and that’s another mistake I see very often, is the lack of a clear mid-ground.
That’s most of the time correlated with the camera’s height, and here is emphasized even more because of the tree that obstructs the central-left part of the scene.
When you want to include an interesting foreground, it’s crucial to be mindful of the middle distance and the camera’s height.
Shooting from a lower viewpoint is usually very helpful to compress the middle distance, but if you stay too low, that may lead to insufficient separation between objects in the middle distance or between the middle distance and the background.
On the other hand, if you shoot from too high, meaning that you’re opening up the planes in the middle distance, it can result in excessive empty space, and you’ll also lose the effectiveness of the close objects in the foreground.
Be mindful and take your time to discover and experiment with foreground elements that complement the background, and establish connections between the foreground, middle distance, and background to create a cohesive composition and a nice flow of elements within the photo.
Working the Scene: Composition #3
Let’s move on to the third variant. I decided to ditch the idea of including the tree and returned to my initial concept of working with rocks and leading lines.
In the image below, I was drawn to this section in the mid-ground that echoed the shape of the peak.
However, once again, I wasn’t very happy with the foreground.
While there were leading lines on both sides pointing in the right direction, their placement wasn’t very functional or well-balanced. The big center section didn’t convince me at all; it carried too much visual weight, drawing all the attention.
Here below (image on the right) is another example from the same spot, but as you can see, it doesn’t work. It’s too confusing and lacks visual harmony.
To emphasize the peak, I needed to simplify the scene as much as possible. After spending a few minutes walking around, I found this beautiful arrangement of rocks, and it just clicked.
I immediately recognized that it was exactly what I was searching for. So, I finalized the camera position by lowering the shooting point a bit to compress the middle ground a little more.
Then I slightly adjusted the framing to reposition these sorts of scars on the bottom left & right of the frame (you’ll see in a moment why I called them this way), avoiding having the crack on the right-hand side falling right on the angle.
This foreground immediately caught my attention for several reasons:
Firstly, the close foreground seamlessly blends into the overall scene. I’m particularly drawn to the strong central leading line formed by the central layer of rocks.
The sidelight plays a crucial role, adding depth, and a lovely 3D effect and making it an effective guide toward the mountain.
For example, here below (left image) is a very similar framing of the scene after sunset before heading back to the van, but as you can see, it lacks the same visual impact.
Secondly, I waited until the big cloud in the sky moved just to the left of the peak, creating a continuation of this S-shape. And it also balances pretty nicely the visual weight on the opposite side of the frame.
There’s a harmonious balance and connection in the middle ground, and a seamless transition between shadows and lights from front to back.
The beautiful color contrast, almost like a duotone color palette, enhances the simplicity and elegance of the composition.
And lastly, what truly guided my choice of this foreground wasn’t strictly related to photography or any other photos I’ve seen on the web of this area.
The spark of inspiration comes from the movie character Azog, the pale orc, from the movie ‘The Hobbit,’ and the mountain’s shape reminiscent of Mount Gundabad.
I know. It might seem weird, but that’s how my brain works, and it’s fun.
This final composition is better in all of the areas that we just discussed: balance, visual weight, distractions, consistency, and lines.
Plan of Action for Better Compositions
I want to give you a plan of action. These are the main three takeaways that you can immediately implement to improve your composition with the wide-angle lens:
1. Declutter the Foreground: Try to simplify the foreground by eliminating any distracting elements. Keep only what adds to the overall mood and message of your shot.
2. Balance and Flow: Arrange the elements in the foreground in a way you can get a nice balance in visual weight and flow. Each component should work together seamlessly, creating a cohesive visual experience and utilizing leading lines effectively.
3. Mindful Camera Placement: Be intentional in positioning your camera. Give your mid-ground some breathing room by maintaining proper object separation. Avoid positioning the camera too high, as this can compromise both composition and the overall sense of depth.
I hope the concepts we have talked about in this video will give you a few things to think about next time you are out in the field. What’s your go-to technique when using a wide-angle lens for shooting landscapes?
About the author: Andrea Livieri is a Venice-based professional photographer, educator, musician, and spirited adventurer. He started exploring the photography medium by capturing images of fellow musicians, their families, and other friends and acquaintances in the music industry. As he continued honing his craft, he merged his love for photography and exploring the outdoors, enabling him to amass lots of photographic work of delightful scenery, rugged mountainscapes, and exhilarating terrain. He also leads photography courses, workshops, and tours to teach other photographers his methods and help them to bring out their own visions. For more from Livieri, you can follow him on his website and Instagram and subscribe to his YouTube Channel. This article was also published here.