When taking pictures, we concentrate intently on our subjects - but what about
the background? Upon later inspection of our photos, we often find the background
detracting from an otherwise great shot.
Taking control of the background can help turn a snapshot into a beautiful
The first step to improving the backgrounds in our photos is to be conscious
of the background's importance to our photos. We must know that the right
backgrounds can make our shots stand out. This often means simply paying
attention to what is behind out subjects during our photography sessions.
Unfortunately, the complete solution is not nearly as simple. The normal goal
is to keep the subject as the center of interest in a picture (not to be confused
with the center of a picture). Your eye should be drawn to the subject in the
final image, and the background must not be distracting from the subject. Shots
must be setup to take advantage of a clean or pleasing background.
Here are some suggestions ...
My first suggestion is to utilize your lens to throw the background out of
focus. The depth of field (amount of in-focus distance) in your picture needs to
be reduced enough so that the subject is sharp and the background is blurred.
Notice how the Lily stands our against its background in the above picture. There
are no distractions. A combination of factors allows your lens to accomplish this
First, open the aperture wide. All other factors being identical, a wider the
aperture yields a shorter depth of field. How wide? Experience is the best
teacher here. The above picture was taken at f/2.8. Experiment!
In conjunction with using a wide aperture setting comes using a lens that has
a very wide aperture such as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 Lens. It can create a
blurred background much more easily than a slow lens (such as the Canon EF
24-85mm f/3.5-4.5). The fast lens has much more latitude on the wide end of the
aperture than the slow lens.
Another way to get a shorter depth of field is to use a lens with a long focal
length such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS Lens used for the above Monster
Buck picture. It will be much more difficult to blur a background with the Canon
EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L Lens. In general, longer focal lengths will provide less depth
of field than short focal lengths at the same aperture setting and subject
Using a higher focal length has the additional advantage of including less
background in your picture. A higher focal length lens has a smaller angle of
view. Pretty simple - less background in your picture leaves less room for
distraction. This may be a reason to choose the Canon EF 180mm L USM Macro Lens
over the Canon EF 100mm USM Macro Lens. Again, less background in the picture
reduces the chance of distractions.
To utilize the depth of field provided by a lens, consider increasing the
subject-to-background distance. The farther the in-focus subject is from the
background, the more out of focus the background will be. Put lots of distance
between the subject and the background. For indoor shots, you might put the
subject in front of a large, (clean) window. The Columbine flower picture above
utilized a window for the background.
How about a reason to use a narrow aperture setting? The snake picture above
utilized a bright flash/narrow aperture setting to make the close subject's
background turn completely black. This is possible even in bright daylight if
your subject is close enough - as was the case in the sample picture. I employ
this tip frequently in macro photography.
A slight revision of this technique works with more subject-to-camera distance
but requires very dim lighting - or complete darkness. Try night photography
outdoors! Flash shadows on the background are non-existent when using this
A common photography mistake is to have competing lines going through the
background of your subject. In the example above, the tree row cuts through the
buck's antlers degrading the picture. Another common example is a bright skyline
going through the back of a person's head. The high contrast line will be very
To avoid an unpleasing background, find a different angle for your shot. Get
down low to use the sky as a background (example above left). Some of my favorite
shots were taken while I was laying flat on the ground or floor. Getting above
your subject allows the lawn or even your carpeting (example above right) to
function as your background. At your own risk of course, get up on a counter,
step ladder, chair or other stable object to get the angle you want.
Keep in mind that the background needs to have a complimenting and pleasing
color scheme. Clashing colors are clashing colors - avoid clashing colors. Find a
different location. Your subject may need to select different clothing. This rule
applies regardless of the background being in or out of focus.
Unless you are looking for a special effect, you need to be aware
of the relative brightness of the background. There are exceptions to this rule,
but having background objects that are brighter than the subject will often be
distracting. Your eye will typically be attracted to the brightest part of the
If you can't find the right existing background, add your own. Many
backdrops/backgrounds are commercially available. A simple and inexpensive
backdrop is a very large sheet of white muslin fabric. This makes a very pleasing
background for portraits (example above). Build a PVC pipe frame to hang it over
and you are set.
For a lower budget approach, employ a white or black sheet. Black velvet was
used for the above/left baby picture - it makes a very nice background material.
The above/right picture was simply a bed comforter. Be creative!
For a very low cost background, try construction paper. The background in this
butterfly metamorphosis picture (above) is a piece of black construction
Post processing techniques for removing, modifying or replacing
the background abound. One amazing tool for accomplishing this task is Adobe
One such PhotoShop technique is selective coloring. If you have a photo with a
cluttered or distracting background, it may be a candidate for selective
coloring. Selective coloring starts with the creation of a duplicate image layer
in PhotoShop. The second layer is converted to black and white and turned into a
layer mask. The layer mask is carefully painted in black and white to allow or
disallow the color layer to show through. The result is a black and white
background and a subject in full color. Selectively colored pictures are
attention getting! Here is an example ...
What about landscape photography? Landscape photography is all about beautiful
backgrounds. The rules are a bit different here because the background is your
subject (you don't want it out of focus). You must be even more attentive to what
makes its way into your background. Typically, avoiding items such as wires,
telephone poles, unattractive buildings, ... will make shot pictures better. If
such objects are unavoidable, remove them later with PhotoShop!
When all else fails (or you just want a different look), fill your frame with
the subject. If there is no background, there will be no background distractions!
This technique works well for portraits of people. Also, try this at the zoo.
Remove the man-made surroundings from your zoo photos by framing the subject very
tight. The Cardinal picture above uses this technique.
To summarize the above tips ... Improving your photography involves
deliberately including or excluding the background from or in your photographs.
Getting started is easy - simply be aware.