Look at the gorgeous photo above. It has the beautiful lighting, the texture of mountains and snow, the curve of the landscape, the contrast of color from oranges and greens, the reflection of water… it seems to have everything on the “great landscape photo” checklist. But there is one thing in this image that if you took it away, this photo would lose all its personality and be just a boring photo of some rocks across a horizon line. There is one single element in this image that brings all those checklist items together into a complete and beautiful whole. Can you guess what it is?
It is that single clump of flowers in the foreground. That’s right. You can have all the amazing mountain majesty that you could ever want but if you don’t have something anchoring the foreground, a landscape is just a picture of a place, and it rarely makes that leap into a compelling photograph that draws the viewer right into the sense of being there. That anchor can be anything from a coconut or seashell on the sand of a beach at sunset, a moss-covered rock along a riverbank or, in this case, a clump of green leaves and purple flowers in front of mountains at golden hour.
To underscore the point, look at the photo as a whole, then cover up the clump of flowers with your hand or by scrolling on your screen so you crop it out of the image. Compare the two photos and decide which one simply feels better, feels more complete, more balanced. Odds are good that you’ll feel more drawn to the photo when you are viewing it with that lovely patch of Parry’s primrose included.
That foreground anchor is basically a “You Are Here” sign to viewers, a place where we can imagine our feet standing, and from which we can look up into the distance at the spectacular beauty of the scene. It also draws our eyes in a circle around the image, from top to bottom, right to left, pulling our attention back and forth from foreground to background which makes the image feel less static, more alive. Without that anchor, a viewer can only feel as if they are looking at a scene, or at best floating within it, unless of course you are a particularly skilled landscape photographer with a knack for drawing viewers in to any scene you show them. But for us mortal photographers, one of the most important elements we can add to a landscape is something visually compelling in the foreground.
So there is your secret to moving from ho-hum landscapes into wowzer landscapes. Next time you head out to photograph a mountain scene at sunset, look for something at your feet and aim up from there.