Finding an interesting foreground element is usually not all that difficult to do. It's the first thing that grabs your attention and draws you into the scene. And it's a great place to start building your composition, especially if you're interested in adding that third D, or depth, that's often desired for the wide open landscape image. One of the reasons why you want to select an interesting foreground element has to do with the how we perceive depth. As you already know, things that are closer to us appear to be larger than objects that are farther away. This is one of the easy ways to add depth. In this image above there is an enormous size difference between the small chunk of ice (about a foot wide) that's the foreground element and the icebergs that are almost floating in the surf which are the size of a small vehicle. But, by moving very close to the small chunk of ice in the foreground, you increase it's size and the perception of depth because it becomes really large compared to the other elements.
But you can't just select an interesting foreground element and stop there, you'll need to keep working out the composition. You'll need to select your lens which will more than likely be some type of wide angle lens if you're looking to add depth to the image. Why? Well the wide angle lens has a way of spreading out the perceived distance between the elements and therefore adding depth. Whereas the telephoto lens does just the opposite. It has the ability to compress the elements and reduce the perceived distance between the elements. So this was an obvious opportunity to express depth in the landscape and so the wide angle lens was the choice.
Then your next decision is the point of view. Sounds simple but it's not as easy as you think when you realize minor changes will have dramatic effects on the perceived spatial relationships between the elements and also on your ability to maintain sharp focus from near to far considering the elements you're working with. In this image, one of the big decisions that had to be worked out is the placement of the horizon. Obviously the clouds and the rain showers in the far distance are a very important element and needed to be included. But, if you pointed the camera up then you flatten out the planes of the image and lose some of the perspective between the elements that you're working hard to create. You also have to work out how you want the mid ground elements to relate to the horizon. Do you want them above or below the horizon? In this case I wanted the icebergs in the midground to be below the horizon and not to interrupt the experience of the sky and clouds in the background.
And you'll also want to consider how the viewer's eye is moving from the different planes in the scene. You'll want to organize the elements within the scene to pull the viewer's eye where you want it go. In this case I took a lot of images but eventually worked out the gentle curving line in the surf that leads the eye from the foreground to the icebergs in the midground in a really pleasing way. It's mostly just pure luck and being willing to take a number of shots until the elements come together. The challenge was also using the long exposure to blur the action of the surf without creating too much blur from the movement of the large icebergs in the midground. There are always fine lines you walk and compromises made to gain the result in one area and sacrifice in another.
The other element that adds depth and dimension to the image is of course the side light. The incredible 2am sunrise light illuminates the icebergs and the subtle shadows help the perception of depth for the viewer. There were some pleasing views 90 degrees to the right of this point of view but then the benefit of the sidelight was lost.
So, it was a magical scene for sure with spectacular light, colors and interesting elements throughout the image. But, in the end, the image succeeds or fails on how those elements are arranged and expressed primarily through the composition. I felt a tremendous sense of joy, awe, and was totally overwhelmed by what I saw in front of me. I'll never forget it. I hope that the image communicates that to you and that you can take away some of these simple thoughts on composition to go out and create your own expressions.