Desperately Seeking Foreground
We've been talking recently about getting down low for a new look at what might otherwise be familiar subjects. Sometimes though, your subject is a majestic mountain peak at dawn or simply the vibrant colors of a gorgeous sunrise itself filling the eastern sky. A wide angle lens allows you to take in more of a huge subject, but risks leaving you with little of interest in the foreground. Shooting from down low and placing something of interest in the foreground can give the viewer an anchor point on which to rest, creating a stronger composition.
If you're shooting something relatively small it's clear that what you see would be radically different depending on whether you choose to look down on your subject or get down next to it so you can shoot from its level. But you might think there's little need to get down low if your subject fills the horizon. After all, changing your shooting height by a couple feet would have little effect on what you see of a mountain that is several thousand feet tall. That's true if you crop out most everything from the foreground — Shoot from both viewpoints and you'll end up with pretty much the same shot of your subject. But both leave you with a somewhat "decapitated" composition that isn't rooted to the frame of the final image. A frame filled with beautifully saturated orange sunrise clouds or a distant mountain peek might seem fine at first glance, but a closer examination leaves the viewer disconnected from the subject. Lacking any meaningful foreground, it's almost as if the photographer himself weren't really there either. All of us are left on the outside looking in.
But pan down a bit to provide a foreground worth looking at gives the image a sense of place and the viewer a way to "enter" that image. Instead of the frame creating a barrier separating the viewer on the outside from the view that can be seen inside, it now provides a bridge that mentally joins the two. This is somewhat the flip side of getting down low to shoot a small subject in its environment. Rather than starting with the foreground and needing a background to provide context, now we're starting with the background and desperately seeking a foreground for context.
More than once I've found myself searching the ground in front of me for any small flower or interesting rock or twig, or the seashore for a small sea star or urchin, to let me create an interesting foreground element. Almost anything will do in a pinch, but it's still not always as easy as it might seem. Sometimes there just doesn't seem to be anything to catch the eye available. When the magic hour light is rapidly changing though isn't the time to madly seeking a foreground. Your chances go up remarkably if you survey your options when you first get to your shooting location, before sunrise or sunset even starts.
As they say, being prepared is always a good idea.