Understanding how elements of the foreground, middleground and background of an image work together can help you to create images that have a sense of depth and complexity, that lead the eye on a journey.
Sometimes referred to as the “layers” of a photo, the foreground, middle ground, and background each play a critical role in how your photo affects the viewer’s attention. Aside from adding depth and dimension to an image, careful placements within the different layers can guide the eye as to where to go next.
Using the different layers of an image to add depth and interest is a technique that hails back at least to the Renaissance when it was first used in paintings.
Let’s take a look at what these layers are and how best to use them to create eye-catching images.
Table of Contents
What is Foreground, Middleground & Background?
The foreground, middleground and background are the three main layers that make up an image.
The Foreground is the area of the image that is closest to your eye. It’s generally located at the bottom of the frame and is the jumping-off point for the viewer to enter the picture.
In landscape photography, the Middleground is the area between the foreground and the background – it’s what ties the two elements together. It generally lies somewhere in the middle of the frame. (Portrait photography doesn’t tend to have a middleground.)
The Background is the area furthest away from the photographer’s eye. In landscape photography, this is usually the top area of the frame. In portrait photography, the background is the area behind the subject.
How Do You Use Foreground Middleground & Background in Photography? (5 Examples)
Generally speaking, the foreground is what leads the viewer into the image. The middleground guides the viewer further into the image. The background keeps the viewer’s eye from wandering out of the frame.
Depth can be added to a scene by placing objects of interest in each of the different layers, ideally in a composition that leads the eye from one to another.
For example, in a landscape, you can have the viewer enter the scene via flowers or interesting rocks in the foreground, transition to water in the middleground, and then land on mountains in the background. The flowers in the foreground will seem quite close to the viewer, while the mountains in the background will seem quite far away. This, tied together with the water element in the middle, will create a feeling of depth and dimension.
While not all photos need to have all three elements, landscape photos will generally be more visually compelling when the composition includes all three layers.
1. Make sure there’s an object of interest in at least two of the three sections.
When you start setting up your shot, look to see what the elements of interest are. What is it that draws your eye to the scene?
Next, make sure that you include at least two interesting elements in the frame – each on a different layer.
In an ideal landscape photography world, we’d be able to place an interesting element in each layer.
In real life, however, that’s not always possible. Luckily including two interesting elements on different layers will usually do just fine.
2. For landscapes, make sure to incorporate a strong foreground element.
Many novice landscape photographers get taken away by a beautiful sunset and think that’s enough for a strong photographic image.
Usually, though, a strong background is not enough. To really create a landscape photo with impact, the foreground should have a strong element of interest – something that will draw the viewers into the scene.
This could be wildflowers, an array of interesting rocks, or, as in the image above, seaweed. What element you choose will depend on what’s around you.
3. Experiment with selective focus.
When doing environmental shots of people, products, or wildlife, it can be impactful to keep the key subject sharp, while allowing the rest of the image to be slightly out of focus.
This brings the attention full onto the subject first but then lets the eye wander into the rest of the image and explore the environment around the subject, before bouncing back to what is in focus.
Here, the pear is in the foreground (in this case on the right third of the image, not the bottom). The middleground is narrow and made up of some of the leaves that are in more focus than the background (in the upper part of the image). The background is that which is most out of focus – see how to create a bokeh background.
Note: Images that are not sharp throughout will have the foreground, middle ground, and background determined by what is more in focus rather than by position in the frame.
4. Combine with the Rule of Thirds
By combining the rule of thirds with the concept of a distinct foreground, middle ground, and background, you can create even more impact in your image.
In the rule of thirds, you use a set of vertical and horizontal lines to divide the scene into nine equal sections. The areas where the lines meet are particularly compelling for the eye.
It’s considered pleasing to line up horizontal elements with the horizontal lines (i.e. the horizon) and vertical elements with the vertical lines (i.e. trees, buildings, etc.).
With landscape photos containing a horizon, you can choose to place either the foreground or the background on one of the horizontal thirds. You can then arrange your elements of interest onto the thirds as well.
In the above image, the trunk of the driftwood tree runs along the the right-hand third, culminating on the top third.
In the feature image for this article – that of the Bixby Bridge – the bridge runs along the upper third while the tuft of grass is centered onto the bottom-right third.
5. Use Leading Lines
Leading lines are natural or manmade lines that a photographer uses to gradually draw a viewer’s eye through a photograph, usually from foreground to background. They can also be used to draw the gaze of the viewer to the main subject of an image – lots of famous nature photographers use them, among other genres.
Roads and paths are some of the most common leading lines, but just about anything that draws the viewer’s gaze along a set path will serve.
In the image above, the line of rocks in the foreground element leads the eyes into the water and then up into the sky, where the eye is gradually drawn into the rock formation in the background.
5. Creative Framing
Creative framing in photography is another excellent technique to combine with using three distinct layers in your image. With it, you find a natural element in your foreground to serve as a “frame” for the middleground and background.
In the image above, a hole in a rock wall provides the foreground frame. The grave stones of the cemetary are the middle ground and the hills in the distance are the background – all of which can be seen through the rocky frame.
If you pay close attention to the different elements in the landscape around you, you’ll likely find all sorts of interesting objects to serve as a frame – from tree branches to bridges, doorways and other architectural elements. You also also use light and shadows, color and even people as framing elements.
As with most techniques, the more you practice composing your images with key elements in the foreground, middleground, and background, the better you’ll get at it.
With a little practice you’ll likely find your landscape photography and environmental portraits much improved.
Teryani Riggs (they/them) is an adventure, who loves all things wild and free. Teryani can often be found in the midst of a social/eco-justice campaign, hiking through wild backcountry, or hitchhiking around the world listening to other people’s stories. While their focus has historically centered on landscape, travel, and wilderness photography, they’ve also been hired to shoot genres as varied as historical fiction reenactments in the studio to product and food photography.