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Foreground versus Background

Foreground versus Background

by Nikos on June 9, 2004

by Nikos | June 9th, 2004


While the photography purist may say that there is no distinction between foreground and background and that a photograph is a flattened abstraction of the visual content of the frame, it’s still good to note how objects on differnt planes of depth interact visually with each other, and provide some tips on how to best use this interaction for aesthetically pleasing and fun results.

This article is not strictly a tutorial or general guide, rather a collection of ideas and examples reagrding the creative use of interaction between foreground and background in photography. A composition’s background can take up numerous different roles in the aesthetic and semantic result of a photo. It can provide context and depth in the story. It can be a nullifier that isolates the subject and makes the viewer focus in it. It can oftentimes reverse the balance of the photo and become the subject itself. It can become one with the subject, a complementary element, without which the foreground cannot be deciphered.

Travel photography is rarely about clear-cut, clinically clean, singular subjects. It often involves the capture of ambient semantics of location, the recreation of the overall atmosphere of a place, or the depiction of subjects that span the visual space from immediate foreground all the way to the background. Playing with the choice and placement of objects and environment inside the frame, depth-wise, can produce some interesting results.

Let’s look at some examples:

1. Providing context

In the following photo, we have a group shot that would be almost meaningless without the context of its location. The wide panoramic view of the exotic, barren, far-reaching landscape makes it interesting and tells a story. The bodies look tired, the faces look satisfied. The background tells us why it is so.



Another photo where the background tells half of the story is the one below. What would have been a mediocre portrait, is transformed into an intriguing personal scene by the atmosphere that the background carries. It not only provides context, it also sets the mood of the photo.



2. Providing focus

A featureless background may be void of context, thus directing the focus onto the foreground subject of the photo. Often that is ideal for portraits. Featureless does not neccessarily need to mean ‘bland’ though. In the following photo, the intensely coloured but smoothly textured nature of a red velvet couch sets the mood while keeping visual distraction to a minimum.



3. The background is the subject

This reversal of perception can sometimes produce striking photographs like the one below. Here, the foreground object is just setting the stage and providing a measure of depth and balance for the actual subject which lies in the background.



4. The background complements the subject

Here, a subject that would be boring if composed in its entirety is captured by showing only parts of it, but arranging them in depth so that they create an imaginary understanding of the whole. You don’t need to see the entire train of sushi dishes to figure out that this is a big conductor-tape circling around the bar. A couple of dishes up front, a line of dishes in the back, and a few heads of restaurant patrons are enough to give you a mental image of the place. The arrangement in depth gives you the added benefits of detail focus on the colourful subject and a less conventional, flat depiction of the scene.



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