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Give photos a dramatic flair with unique foreground/background combinations

Added on Tuesday 15th of March 2011 10:32 am EST



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Creating eye-catching pictures that stand out above the rest can be a hit-or-miss proposition. One method to help produce more “That’s the one!” kinds of pictures is to pay close attention to the crucial interactions between foreground and background.


To help you make the most of foreground/background relationships, we’ll:

•  Discuss effective approaches for framing a subject to be aware of framing alternatives.

•  Reveal a novel way to make foreground subjects appear more interesting to the viewer.

•  Show how to get the foreground and background to interact in a way that’s both engaging and natural.


The difference between a run-of-the-mill photograph and one that really captures people’s attention often boils down to the interplay between foreground and background elements. Typical relationships between these key compositional components typically result in typical pictures. Fascinating relationships between them will result in more fascinating pictures.


Hunt for the right frame

Part of the fun in photography is making the most of those framing elements that are there. For example, one of the most common foreground/background combinations in landscape photography involves vegetation in the foreground framing a distant subject. While this approach can be rather routine, there’s nothing inherently wrong it. And, of course, you have to work with what you have.

To enhance the framing concept and thereby produce a more memorable photo, search for interesting geometric relationships between the frame and subject. We find that framing elements echoing the geometry of a subject work best, although interesting geometric tension between foreground and background can be nice too.

The trick to finding a good frame is to just keep taking many pictures of a scene from different vantage points. The Upper Yosemite Falls trail provides many opportunities to view Half Dome, and it took dozens of shots before we found a geometric interaction between frame and subject that appealed to us, shown in Figure A.





Tips for great shots while hiking

Most of the shots in this article were taken while hiking, so we thought is was a good opportunity to discuss some things we learned on the path:

•  On a difficult trail, push yourself a bit during those times when you don’t see a photo opportunity; then use picture-taking as the time to catch your breath. Frequent stops for photos can help energize you and keep you feeling rested enough to climb further.

•  Be sure to keep turning around, especially after leaving an interesting scene. Many of the best shots sneak up from behind you.

•  Make the most of the lighting and vantage points you have at the moment. Don’t assume that the next view will be better, or that a unique lighting effect will still be there in a few minutes. Conditions change rapidly in nature.

•  Carry thin glove liners with you when in cold climates or at high elevations so you can operate your camera easily and comfortably.


Let the backdrop elevate the subject

Another common foreground/background relationship involves focusing on a close subject and leaving the background out of focus. In theory, it doesn’t matter what’s in the background. If it’s blurry enough, the most mundane scene can make an excellent backdrop.

To enhance this concept a bit, however, consider focusing on a subject that many people would overlook, then clearly subjugating the main attraction behind it. Figure B applies this concept, albeit subtly.



If you look carefully, you can see that the background is composed of running water. In fact, this particular gorge is well known for its beautiful waterfalls. In comparison, the small yellow wildflower didn’t stand out as anything special, at least when seen in the context of the entire scene around us. Our sole motivation for noticing it was that we saw an opportunity to subjugate the running water behind it.

In determining the final version of this shot, we made sure to leave more space to the left of the flower than to the right, so as to emphasize the waving gesture of the leaf, echoed in the diagonal line of the water.


Redirect focus

As with many aspects of composition, what makes the background subjugation technique potentially effective is the implied logic that plays in a viewer’s head, even if he’s not aware of it. For example, our intent is that a viewer reasons, at least subconsciously, through the following four step: the background contains some information, the photographer thought it less important than the foreground, the composition gives it less prominence, so there must be something special about the foreground.

Figure C aims to take advantage of such reasoning in a bolder way. The fuzzy forms at the top of the cliff are spectators affirming the common wisdom that the massive falls should be the main attraction worthy of our attention. But instead, the main story in the picture is the cluster of seagulls in flight, frozen into stylized poses.



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