Foreground Framing
Wide Angle Lenses, Deep Depth Of Field And Point Of View Can Yield Some Great Travel Shots

Photos © 2001, Kerry Drager, All Rights Reserved

Foreground frames show a subject in its environment and, at the same time, lead the eye through the picture. Done effectively, this "sense of place" approach can produce a three-dimensional effect, with the scene sweeping away from front to back and giving viewers the feeling that they can stroll right into the photograph.

A frame, however, doesn't have to encircle a subject, and many successful frames don't. For a near-to-far composition, look for a border that is interesting and that also complements its surroundings. For example, I once photographed a country church equipped with great color--red--and great character--a free-standing bell tower that worked as an eye-catching frame. Another time, a natural arch made a perfect border for distant snow-capped peaks. While the foreground and backdrop in many scenes generally share a contextual link, other times youmay wish to show subject contrast, such as an historic building backed by a modern skyscraper.

Lens Lowdown
An exclusive storytelling perspective--the ability to combine intimate details with distant views in the same picture--makes the wide angle lens a valuable tool for creating frame photos. A wide angle also helps strengthen the sense of depth, since a close-at-hand foreground appears larger in relation to the background. As for focal length, almost anything will work. My favorite "sense of place" lens is a 24mm, although a newly acquired medium wide angle to short telephoto zoom (35-70mm) will soon get a framing workout.

Don't overlook other lens options. On a California Gold Country tour, I wanted a gold miner statue to dominate the foreground with an historic courthouse beyond. But streets and sidewalks kept intruding into my wide angle composition. To crop out the clutter, I employed a close-by camera position with a "normal" (55mm) focal length.

Creative Design
While a foreground border often helps focus attention on the photograph's center of interest, the frame itself can serve as the primary subject. A border also can help fill up a featureless sky or other empty space. Or it can clean up a composition by concealing distracting objects. And sometimes you can even use more than one frame--for instance, picturing a subject through openings on separate walls of an old building. In any case, take the time to play with your composition: Try different viewpoints, and vary the format--sometimes a vertical can further highlight a foreground.

Keep in mind that the wide angle's strong point--an exploded look that exaggerates the size of foreground objects--can be a drawback as well. The tendency is to back up to get more into the picture, which commonly leads to a vast empty space in front that overwhelms everything behind. The key is to move in tight and take advantage of the lens' wide-ranging perspective. For my own work, I'm often within 2-3 ft from the nearest point. This close-up positioning, though, has its hazards: Even a subtle shift in camera position can alter the near-far relationship. Such a need for preciseness is one reason I use a tripod on every non-action shot.

Depth Of Field
"Sense of place" photography demands a consideration of depth of field, the area of acceptably sharp focus from front to back in your picture. You can control that zone by adjusting the f/stop (small apertures increase the depth of field) and varying the focusing distance (for maximum sharpness, avoid focusing on your scene's nearest or farthest point). All things being equal, a wide angle lens can also help extend the depth of field.

To determine the exact depth of field, use the preview mode or program found on many SLRs, check the scale markings on some lenses, consult the lens manufacturer's table, or obtain a hyperfocal chart. Although foreground frames frequently demand that everything be sharply rendered (another good reason for a tripod, since small f/stops require longer shutter speeds), occasionally you'll want a blurred frame to direct attention to a crisp-and-clear subject.

With an outdoor portrait, a short telephoto zoom set at a large aperture (say, f/2.8 or f/4) obscures the frame and plays up your star attraction. Every wildflower season, I get down and dirty, set my 55mm or 105mm macro lens at its widest opening, and move in very close and very personal (a few flowers almost touch the lens). I then zero in on a single blossom, leaving a soft splash of color as the border.

Exposure Factors
Contrast--areas of dark shadows, bright highlights, or both--can be an exposure obstacle. In frame shots, contrast frequently translates into a blend of dimly lit foreground and brilliant backdrop (often the sky). To balance the light, try fill flash or a graduated filter. Or consider shifting your camera angle to eliminate a glaring hot spot. On overcast days, a gleaming white sky can overpower everything else unless you point your camera down to crop it out.

Occasionally, you can make contrast work for you--say, to create a dramatic light-and-shadow show. For silhouette frames, look for a distinctive yet shaded form, and base your exposure only on the sunlit subject beyond, so the frame turns out as a striking black shape.

Final Frame
Employing a frame may be an eye-catching way to show a subject within the context of a larger view, but it shouldn't be done mindlessly. Whether or not you use a border depends on the subject, your artistic intent, and technical concerns. Regardless, avoid overdoing it; any technique can become a clich if overdone. Foreground framing success hinges on practicing, experimenting, and not being afraid to follow your instincts--and also realizing that not every shot can be a winner. After all, you may not always know what you'll get if you snap the shutter, but what will you get if you don't?

Kerry Drager is the author of "Scenic Photography 101: A Crash Course to Shooting Better Pictures Outdoors" (Amphoto Books). His work has also appeared in magazines, Hallmark cards, Sierra Club calendars, and in his previous photo-essay book, "The Golden Dream: California from Gold Rush to Statehood" (Graphic Arts Center Publishing). Drager lives in the country near Sacramento, California.

Equipment List
35mm Camera Bodies: Nikon F5; Nikon FM2
Nikkor Lenses: 24mm AF 2.8D; 55mm 2.8 Micro; 35-70mm AF 2.8D; 105mm AF Micro 2.8D; 80-200mm AF-ED 2.8D
Accessories: Nikon A2 warming filter (for each lens, but not always used); Moose's warm polarizer (for each lens, but used sparingly); Gitzo tripod and ball head, with Linhof quick-release system; cable release; Nikon Speedlight SB-28 (used sparingly)
Film: Fufichrome Velvia (primary choice); Ektachrome E100VS