When composing a photo, one of the most important aspects (if not THE most important) is composition. One piece of the composition puzzle is your foreground. To make a beautiful, sweeping sunset photo that really sticks with the viewer there needs to be more than just some vivid cloud colors – you need something up front to catch the eye and hold it for a second. Almost anything can be used to fill that crucial foreground space: flowers, rocks, an old car, people (not posed but actually doing something interesting), trees, or anything else you can find that would be a compelling addition to the scene. Leading lines can also be used as foreground elements. Let me explain. On a beach, if you creatively structure your photograph, you can use a winding rocky coastline or the incoming tide as a foreground element to help guide your eye farther in to the scene. I don’t think this is as effective as an actual object (or group of objects), but it can work wonders if there is nothing in front of you at the time. I will try to walk you through some of my thoughts as I was shooting last night’s sunset.
Yesterday evening I decided to head out to Monte di Procida, a hilltop town just outside of Bacoli that sits right above the beach. On the northern side of the town, the cliffs slope downward a bit, providing some nice outlooks to observe the sunset from. I have wanted to shoot from this location for quite some time now, eyeing this specific perch from one of my favorite spots alone the rocky beach numerous times.
When I first arrived it was about 7:45 pm. One of the biggest pieces of advice I can offer if you are heading somewhere to shoot a specific event is to give yourself a buffer. That extra 10 minutes will allow you to re-check settings, fully observe your surroundings, make mental notes of different shooting options, and search for the best possible setup for your shots. I can’t tell you how many times my laziness has forced me to rush things while trying to get that sweet sunset shot and I almost always forget something.
The first thing I noticed when I set up my rig was the group of pretty wildflowers in front of my lens. This is where an ultra-wide angle lens comes in handy. You can really take in a huge amount of real estate, keeping it sharp and in focus while allowing yourself to catch the background elements as well (shooting F/9 or higher will get more in focus, shooting my wide open will give you less DOF, increasing background or foreground blur). Can you imagine the photo below without any foreground elements?? When I look at this shot, my eyes do a little leading line circle dance which keeps the photo interesting.
BTW, since I keep getting asked, none of these shots were processed as HDR images (through Photomatix). All are single exposures, only processed with Lightroom 4.
After a few minutes shooting from the previous location, I remembered the beautiful yellow flowers a couple of meters behind me. Re-situating myself, checking settings and adapting to the dynamic lighting conditions, I realized the wind had picked up and I would not be able to capture the flowers sharply. Who cares? Being able to take what nature gives you and work with it, transferring the creative juices to your photography is what can make you stand out from other photographers and will keep your work fresh and exciting. In this case, using that little bit of movement in the foreground helped to bring this scene to life. Don’t you think?
Additionally, moving just a small distance backwards changes the aspect of the entire scene. Take a second to compare the two photos and notice all of the subtle (and obvious) differences in scale and composition. When you make changes during a photo session it can greatly increase your overall output. Just moving your setup a few feet can give your viewers a completely different look at the scene.
After I was finished with the tripod, I started walking back to my car. I noticed the light was still changing by the second. Not wanting to miss any of the dynamic beauty unfolding in front of me, I jacked up my ISO and composed the following shot. I placed the yellow-flowered bush to the bottom right on the frame, using an Allegro-modified rule of thirds, and metered for the incoming waves, thinking a neutral lighting tone would suffice. After some clean up in Lightroom 4 the photo was ready for sharing.
Silhouettes can also be powerful as foreground elements. The sun had set but there was still a significant amount of color in the sky. The moon was also present, just another element to add to an already interesting shot. In the final two photos I tried to use the plants in front of me as silhouetted foreground elements, meant to add just a little more depth to the scene. To silhouette something in a photograph, if it is not already, you should up the contrast of the scene in post-production, increasing shadows and blacks as well. The scene should be fairly dark to begin with (but doesn’t have to be!). Meter for the brighter areas of the background as well. That will insure the “darker” areas of your shot will stay dark.
One last tip: When all of the other photographers pack up and head home, stick around that extra 30 minutes. Sometimes being little more patient will pay off with a magnificent light show, as was the case last night.
Well there you have it. Please use the comment box below if you have anything to add! Thanks for visiting and if you are still reading, I appreciate it!
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