As photographers, we often think of locations in terms of finding a place in which to pose our subjects for portrait sessions; however, we should also look at how we can use lighting and the elements in these locations to add depth and create visual interest in our photos. In other words, with a dash of creativity, you can use your locations to provide far more than just a backdrop.

In this article, we’re going to look at different ways to use foreground elements and special effects to make the most of your location and boost visual interest in your photos using some examples from our latest Engagement Photography 101 course, designed to guide you from communication to capture to create stunning engagement photography using the gear you already have.

Set Up Your Shot

Before we even start incorporating foreground objects/elements, let’s start by framing and composing our shot. Here are 4 easy steps to remember using our C.A.M.P Framework (learn more about it here):

Step 1: Scout for Worthwhile Locations

Incredible portrait sessions start with scouting for worthwhile locations. The more prepared you are going into a shoot, and the more familiar you are with your surroundings, the better chance you have of maximizing your session time and capturing the best of what each location has to offer. This is especially true for wedding & engagement photographers, who often operate under strict timelines. For this reason, it is imperative that you scout your locations (ideally in person) before using them during a live session. As you’ll discover in the following steps, some locations offer simple tools you can use to enhance your shots and add visual interest to your photos.

Step 2: Let the Light Guide You – Look For the Brightest Area of the Scene

When first walking into a potential location, most photographers look for objects, like fountains or trees, to place their subjects next to, and they base everything on the placement of the object. Using an object as a compositional tool is great, but a tree’s presence alone won’t make for a great portrait.

Rather than focus on the object, it’s important to first look at the light in the scene, especially if you’re shooting with natural light. One simple “rule” to remember is to place our subjects in the brightest area of the scene. If we were to place our subjects in the shade under a tree branch, for example, they would fall into the dark part of the frame while the highlights of the brighter, backlit leaves would draw the viewer’s focus away from our subjects.

wedding and engagement photography foreground elements special fx before and after

Instead, if we look through the branches in the scene (as illustrated in the image above) and notice the sunny patch in the grass and leaves behind, we know we can use that patch and our subjects will be in the brightest area of the scene. There are few (if any) branches directly over our subjects’ heads, and with the sun at their back, we get a natural hair light that helps the subjects pop against the background. We can further accentuate this effect by positioning ourselves to place darker areas in the background behind our subjects.

Step 3: Dial in Your Exposure

Take a couple test shots to dial in your exposure before you move on so that you can turn your attention to capturing the shot rather than fumbling over the technical details. It helps when you have a final look in mind so that you can expose accordingly. Depending on your style, you can use your histogram to help maximize dynamic range, and you may also want to use your highlight alert to avoid clipping highlights that are less apparent in the histogram. Doing these two things will help you retain more detail and give you more editing option during the post-production process.

Step 4: Place and Pose Your Subjects

Once you’ve identified a spot with ideal lighting, place your subjects in the scene and direct them into a pose. You will continue directing your subjects with simple cues even after you start capturing images, but it’s good to demonstrate how you want them to pose to get things started.

engagement and wedding photographer use 5 in 1 reflectors for seats

There may be occasions in which you have to improvise if the scene is uncomfortable for your subjects. For example, in the image above, you can see that we’ve used a couple 5-in-1 reflectors as seats so that our subjects wouldn’t have to sit directly on wet ground, and we made sure to position the couple so that we couldn’t see the reflectors.

Bonus Tip: It’s worth noting that many locations require permits and have rules about how you can use the property (some locations do not permit tripods and discourage straying from established trails, for example), so please be sure to do your research and follow the guidelines for the locations you use.

[Related Reading: Official Couples Posing Guide – Tips, Cues, and More!]

Adding Foreground Elements & Special Effects to Boost Visual Interest

Now that you’ve set up your shot, let’s discuss ways to start elevating the visual interest buy incorporating foreground elements and/or special effects. Most spots offer a variety of everyday objects we can use as foreground elements (like leaves on a tree, for example) to serve a number of purposes, which include concealing or enhancing parts of the scene to help draw focus to our subjects and add visual interest to our images. We’ll outline a few engagement photography examples below and discuss how to make the most of your session.

Step 5: Use Foreground Elements to Frame the Shot and/or Create Depth

With our subjects in place and the lighting dialed in, we can start to find ways to use various foreground elements to frame our subjects and add visual interest to the image. It’s ideal, whenever possible, to use elements that are present on location because you can create a more authentic looking image if the element already belongs in the scene, as you’ll find in the examples below.

Tree Branches and Leaves

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Trees offer plenty of opportunities to add foreground elements to your portraits. From low hanging branches and leaves to the trunk itself, you can stand under, next to, or even at a distance and still utilize a tree to help frame your shots and enhance your images. Leaves can prove especially useful to conceal distracting elements in the scene while drawing focus to the subjects. All of this while adding beauty and depth to the imagery. Here is another great example of using tree branches and leaves to help frame your subject(s).

Snowy Plant

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While on location, just before leaving a session, we found a large bush whose branches were full of little seeds that would float in the air with even the slightest breeze. We decided to use the bush as a background and shake one of the branches that had fallen on the ground to create a snowy effect and add visual interest to our photo. Learn more about this technique here.

Rocks or Reflections on the Beach

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We often think of epic sunsets when we think of beach sessions, but they’re not always available. Such was the case at the beach in the session pictured above. The sky lacked any significant clouds and color, and it wasn’t exactly interesting to look at. By getting low to the ground and using the rocks and a puddle to fill the foreground and add a reflection, we created a more dynamic image than if we had filled the frame with the mostly empty sky.

Special Effects

wedding and engagement photography foreground special effects

If you don’t have elements available, such as those listed above, you can always bring props and special effects tools with you (such as a Prism, a bronze tube, or even a phone).

[Related Reading: Building the Shot – Ring Flare and Lens Special FX]

Step 6: Shoot from Different Angles – Wide, Medium, and Tight – to Enhance Storytelling

wedding and engagement photography wide medium tight angles

A simple change in perspective can go a long way when it comes to telling stories with your images. Follow all of the tips above, and then photograph your subjects from different angles to establish the scene and work your way into the details, revealing more about your subjects along the way.

Step 7: Direct for a Range of Expressions

By continuing to direct your subjects with simple cues throughout the session, you can change up their expressions and poses, however slightly, to produce a wide variety of final, deliverable images. Here are a couple of cues you can use, depending on your comfort level with your subjects:

  • From a stacked pose, ask the subject in the back to pull the other subject in and hug him/her as if they haven’t seen each other in several weeks.
  • Tell a joke, like “Why did the gnome laugh when it ran across the grass?”
  • If jokes don’t work, you can ask for forced laughter, which usually results in genuine smiles just after the awkward laughs.

Conclusion

I hope you found these tips on using foreground elements and special effects to boost the visual interest in your photos helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about how to photograph couples, don’t miss our Engagement Photography 101 workshop, which is available for pre-sale now with a special, limited-time discount.