with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Behind the Background Magic

Brent in Alaska - Behind the Scenes logoIn our article series on background magic, we looked at the ways to create a perfect background and the crimes against backgrounds many photographers commit. In this Behind The Scenes article, we want to explore more of the magic of backgrounds and how they can make or break a photograph. We’ll show you examples of some of our photographs and tell you how we got the background to work, or what needs to be done to improve the background. Our images are about to go under the background critic’s knife, so let’s go!

The Act of Background Separation

When working with small subjects, especially finely detailed or patterned, there are times when you want the background to be a detail rather than part of the scene. You want it to be there, but not noticed, nothing to attract attention to it. It is the canvas that your subject merely rests upon.

Finding quiet and unremarkable, distraction-free backgrounds in nature can be challenging. Part of the defining characteristic of nature and “wild” is a bit of chaos. Isolating a subject against a quiet natural background requires understanding how your camera lens sees and how to maximize its capabilities to choose the right background.

Spider in web near flowers, photograph by Brent VanFossenPhotographing this spider against the glowing back light of the rising sun, Brent was working in a vacant lot in the Fremont District of downtown Seattle. The city was everywhere around him and he needed to block it out, and do it quickly before the sun rose, heating up the land just enough to dry the condensation on the web and start the wind blowing. He choose his close-up tool of choice, the 200mm lens and worked fast. Adding a 1.4 teleconverter and increasing the focal length to 320mm, he knew the background within the lens perspective would be very narrow, allowing him to choose a small spot of grass in the background. He chose an aperture that again, allowed him fast enough shutter speed in the low light while giving him a shallow enough depth of field to blur the background completely out of focus, isolating the spider on the webas the sun lit it from behind.

Closeup of spider on web, photograph by Brent VanFossenThe spider cooperated by stayng still, but Brent still fought with the odd angle of the web and the fact that the spider was hanging upside down. The angle meant the depth of field was too narrow to keep the entire web in focus. He got in position wedged between the bushes, careful not to brush against or move the bush the spider had anchored against, and bracketed his aperture to increase his chances of getting the right result in the end. The depth of field is the sharp area in the front and center of the web, including the spider, but the far edge blurs into the background. With the final slide, we just flipped it over and the spider appears in a more comfortable position for us to look at. As the background is nondescript, the web “feels” like it continues with no definable edge, enhancing the drama of the photograph.

Keep It Simple: Flood of Color Backgrounds

Single daisy photographed against fir tree branches, photograph by Brent VanFossenWhen photographing flowers or small subjects, it is best to isolate the subject using its environment to frame it. Understanding how your equipment works and knowing how your lens sees, you can estimate your depth of field and choose the appropriate aperture which will either blur the background completely out of focus or allow enough of the background to be in focus for us to recognize what it is without calling too much attention to it.

Baby blue eyes, photograph by Brent VanFossenIn the photograph of the daisy against a wall of fir tree branches, the neutral green background emphasises the bright white of the flower. In the photograph of the baby blue eyes to the left, the wash of light blue color from surounding flowers is very soft and out-of-focus with the shallow depth of field and doesn’t provide much of a contrast, but the softness of the blend of blue tones adds a romantic gentleness to the image rather than making a bold statement.

A wash of color that accentuates the colors of the subject without losing the subject in all the color, adds drama to an ordinary photograph. Look for echoing colors, complementary colors, or contrasting colors that accentuate and frame the subject.

Fiddlehead fern, photograph by Brent VanFossenWhen working with strong geometric shapes and patterns, as with this fiddlehead fern, let the background recede and disappear so the design takes center stage. The delicate spiral was the main subject, and the soft green background Tree branches in silhouette against a sunset sky, photograph by Brent VanFossenis just light enough in tone from the green fern to highlight it within the photograph. We concentrate on the pattern and ignore everything else because the background attracts no attention.

Sunset or sunrise skies or clouds can create beautiful colors which provide a dramatic color wash behind an interesting subject. Silhouettes make strong graphic statements against the canvas of a colorful sky. In the photograph to the left, Brent chose to frame the tree branches against a patch of sky with multiple sunrise colors, using a similar technique as his blurring background colors when working with close up subjects. Since the sky was so far away in the distance, he could use a fairly deep depth of field to keep the branches in focus while the sky faded off into a blur of color. He let the mix of colors make a dramatic statement without stealing from the tree branch patterns. In fact, the background enhances the silhouette patterns.

Blurring Colorful Backgrounds

Caterpillars, butterflies, and most insects are challenging to photograph. First, they tend not to cooperate, and second, they are busy little creatures. That is, they are often colorful and patterned, and capturing their natural artistry is difficult when it comes to backgrounds. Dark parts like antenna and legs tend to disappear and get lost in a dark or black background. A bright white background overwhelms them. Somewhere there is an in between and we’re always on the look-out for the magical in between background.

Caterpillar climbs a dried grass stalk, photograph by Brent VanFossenIn the image to the right we found a caterpillar in the “wilds” outside of a subdivision near our campground in Ft. Meyers, Florida. It was climbing the dried grass stalk about a meter off the ground and Brent knew he had a great photo opportunity. The problem was overcoming the busy subdivision in the background and the litter in the grasses.

Moving around and carefully examining the background at the level the camera would be, Brent noticed the playground equipment and some flowers nearby. Understanding how those would look when blurred, he decided to make the colors work for him. He chose the 200mm lens for its narrow angle of view and control of the background. This gave him the depth of field he needed with the right shutter speed to capture the caterpillar on the grass stalk as it moved in the breeze while blurring the background into colorful but non-distracting blobs of color that still maintained some shape to add character without distraction.

Flower captured using the same lens perspective technique of blurring the background with a shallow depth of field, photograph by Brent VanFossenA blend of colors, definable color blobs if you will, to create a dramatic canvas behind a simple subject is a common trait in Brent’s close up photography. Indian Paintbrush wildflower using the same blurred background technique, photograph by Brent VanFossenIf you have a graphically busy or complex subject, the simpler the background the more impact the subject has. Subjects like daisies or dandelions which are seen commonly in groups or fields, tell a different story when they are isolated and separated with contrasting backgrounds as a solo act.

Flowers work well against a soft diffused yet colorful background. The viewer gets the information that this is just one flower singled out against the many, and that this picture was taken in “nature” rather than in a studio, giving it a more natural feeling. Flowers can be complex subjects with repeating patterns but many of the texture and pattern details aren’t as visible when photographed in a group from a distance. Isolating the flower against a wash of color in the background puts the emphasis on these details, allowing the viewer to see a familiar subject in an unusual presentation.

Light Matters

Shoot star wildflowers in bright contrasty sunlight, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenLight matters in all photography, but harsh light and shadows can ruin your background. The busy and high contrast of the lights and darks defeat your subject’s chances of even being seen.It’s like trying to read the chicken soup letters when all the letters are at the bottom of the soup. In the photograph to the right are some small delicate shooting stars, alpine wildflowers. With the clutter of the shadows and light, you can hardly see them. It’s a tangled mess. The eye doesn’t know where to rest.

Shoot star wildflowers photographed in shade, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThere are several ways to counteract the shadows and change your background so the subject can stand out and accept its due acclaim. One method is to shade the subject and the background. This is practical for small, cooperative subjects, but more difficult when working with an elk or elephant. The shade tends towards blue, though, so add a warming filter to raise the color temperature to a more “natural” tone. Using a jacket, we shaded the shooting stars to block out all the highlights and shadows, and the blue tone of the shade accentuated their blue-purple color.

Shooting star wildflowers photographed using a diffusion cloth, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenA diffusion cloth acts like a cloud in front of the sun, diffusing and softening the light. Unlike shade which casts a blue color, a diffusion cloth allows white light to pass through. The diffusion cloth really brought out the color in the shooting stars, softening the background and giving the flowers a chance to stand out and take a bow.

Tundra swans rest on the lake in the early morning light, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, photograph by Brent VanFossenLight matters when it comes to understanding the impact of the color of light on your background to accentuate your subject. Sometimes it can be too intense but other times, it can be the punch you need to kick start your photograph. In the photograph to the left, snow geese are sleeping on the lake early in the morning at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The water offers them protection from land predators. As the sun rises, they awake and fly off to the fields where they graze all day long, returning to the water at sunset, resting and feeding for the long spring migration heading north. During the day, these bare trees in the background are dull and boring. At night, well, it’s dark. But for the few moments of intense predawn light, they glow almost red, creating a dramatic and colorful color contrast to the sleeping white swans.

Background Echoes

Spring alpine wildflowers, Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, photograph by Brent VanFossenWorking with patterns and textures, we like to have the backgrounds echo the patterns, either filling the frame or as soft, partially in-focus or out-of-focus echoes in the background. Fields of flowers are great opportunities to put this technique to work. The photograph to the right features a variety of wildflowers, some in focus and some out of focus. The lack of similarity in this echoing background isn’t meant to give you the sense of order. It is meant to represent the colorful clutter of wild flowers.

Batch of tulips, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenIn the example photograph of tulips to the left, the repeating pattern of the flowers appearing smaller and smaller as they move off towards the distance gives the feeling of movement, of vast distance, of a field of flowers all repeating themselves endlessly. In reality, this is a small section of tulips in a sample display garden in Mt. Vernon, Washington, where there are millions of tulips usually flowing out over the fields in the Annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, one of the most popular tulip festivals in the world. Unfortunately, that particular year had been a season of bad timing and bad weather and few tulips made their regularly scheduled appearance in the fields. By using a long lens and compressing the scene with careful composition to avoid the other plants, bushes, and buildings around this small patch, we were able to give the sensation of a field of tulips at a time when there were few fields to be found.

Daffodil, photograph by Brent VanFossenFinding similar or objects to echo around or behind your main subject adds interest. We’re not looking at a single flower but a concert of flowers. The in-focus daffodils to the left are echoed all around with out-of-focus daffodils, crowding together to frame the one in focus. There is a blend and harmony found in the group of flowers.

Lake Louise, Canada, photograph by Brent VanFossenUsing highly graphic subjects, we can often look for echoing opportunities in other, less obvious ways. In the photograph to the right of rocks in the foreground of Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada, and the mountains and the glaciers in the background, can you notice the similarities? This was a carefully composed photograph, taking advantage of the echoing background and foreground technique. Using a wide angle lens, we moved in low to the rocks in the foreground, looking for echoes. Can you see them? Yes, the mountains and glaciers echo the rocks in the foreground. The triangles upon triangles is clearly evident if you pay attention. The reflection of the valley in the water creates another echo of the background. Echoes upon echoes make this an interesting photograph to look at over time, finding the patterns within patterns. The echoing effect between all the parts lead your eye into the photograph with time to wander and explore and continue deeper into the scene.

From a Distance to a Distance

Backgrounds are not limited to floods of color and out-of-focus elements. Backgrounds are part of the story. They draw the viewer into the story of the photograph. Scenics and landscapes which feature a leading line lead the viewer’s eye into the scene and create a sense of distance. Even though they are viewing a flat dimensional subject, the imagination kicks in and their eye takes them on a walk, sometimes a long walk, leading them into the background of the image.

Stream of water moving through a grassy field, photograph by Brent VanFossenRivers and roads are typical leading lines that invite a viewer to explore. But let’s look at the impact backgrounds have on the sense of scale and depth to a scenic image. The first image to the right features a gently flowing stream meandering through the grasses. The background is shortened to only include the grasses. Without the sky or another object to compare with, we have no sense of scale, no sense of sweeping drama. It’s a peaceful photograph.

Water stream, Denali, Alaska, photograph by Brent VanFossenBy including the sky and letting the stream of water lead us into the photograph, heading towards the background of distant mountains, we now have a different story in this photograph. We have a sense of scale – we know mountains are BIG. The S-curve leads our eye in dramatically, eager to follow its twists and turns towards the mountains. Ah, we have a goal! We want to go there. We feel distance, scale, and a sense of excitement and adventure. This is a wild place that invites daring adventurers.

Texas Wildflowers photograph by Brent VanFossenLeading lines of S-curves aren’t limited to roads and waterways, they can be found in the patterns of many things. In this field of wildflowers in the Texas Hill Country, the colors shift against each other creating the illusion of a slowly curving S-shape pulling your eye into the photograph, following the lines of colors into the distance. There is a sense of endless colorful flowers flowing across the plains.

Looking up into the trees with clouds in the background, photograph by Brent VanFossenThe sky itself offers no real sense of scale. It is just a glimpse of blue in the background, but we are so used to seeing the sky as a great dome over our heads, vast distance is implied in our imagination. When shooting up into the trees with the sky overhead, the use of a wide angle lens stretches the photograph, intensifying the distance and drama. The background sky with its thin clouds seems far away. Without the clouds, we should have a picture of trees growing up. With the clouds against the blue sky, the viewer feels the energy of moving upwards, reaching up, brushing the sky – there is now action through imagination in the photograph.

Appropriate Backgrounds: Understanding Habitats

One of the challenges in photographing wildlife and “natural” things is to keep the foreground and background “natural”. This is not so much to lie to the viewer as to capture the sense of nature in its natural element. Understanding the natural habitat and conditions in which you would normally find your subject helps you to pay attention to the details in the background and foreground which place your subject on familiar grounds.

Mountain goats in the mountains, photograph by Brent VanFossenPeople want a sense of where and when a subject is photographed and a background can provide that. With golden leaves in the background trees, we know an image was taken in fall. If there is snow on the ground, it must be winter. Wildflowers are associated with spring. The viewer gets a sense of where a photograph is taken by the presence of desert terrain or high snow-capped mountains hovering in the background. The habitat of the subject tells part of the story of the subject and care should be taken to include it when appropriate.

The mountain goat and her kid were photographed with a long lens to compress the mountain cliffs in the background to enhance the “natural” environment this animal is usually found. Since these animals live their lives at high alpine altitudes, among the sheer and rugged cliffs of mountains, the sense of scale provided by the mountain background tells the story of where they live.

Wolf in forest at Northwest Trek, photograph by Brent VanFossenIn the photograph to the left, we photographed this wolf at Northwest Trek, a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Washington State. Northwest Trek takes great care to keep their Pacific Northwestern native wildlife in enclosures and areas that match the animal’s natural surroundings, as much as possible. Taking advantage of that, we were able to photograph this wild and rarely seen creature fairly closeup. Unfortunately, we’ve had problems selling the photograph. In the foreground you can see a cut log. Since cut logs represent “the hand of man”, buyers think that this isn’t a “wild” photograph. It isn’t, but they don’t want a photograph with a cut log in the picture. With today’s digital “fixing”, we can change the log to look more natural, but our argument to buyers was that wolves are severely encroached upon by humans, so it is highly possible, and a dramatic part of the story, to have a cut log in the foreground representing the logging and intrusion of humans into a once wild world. We’re still working on that selling point, but either way, it is critical to learn about the natural habitat of the subject you are photographing and make sure that no elements which may tell a different story are included.

Blue Skies for Bird Backgrounds

Northern Mocking Bird, photograph by Brent VanFossenIn contrast to the techniques of photographing most nature subjects, overcast days are not always best for photographing birds if you want an appropriate background. Psychologically, people think birds should be “in the sky” therefore there is a general acceptance of blue sky backgrounds. Blue sky backgrounds work best when the angle of light is low enough to highlight the front or side of the bird, and if the bird is in flight, to illuminate the underside of the wings. If there is a cloudy sky, and there is definition in the clouds, the clouds don’t have to be in focus in the background as long as they look to clearly be clouds.

Osprey flies to nest, photograph by Brent VanFossenBlue skies offer a non-distracting and simplified background in which to frame the bird. White skies are death to a photograph in general, but definitely torturous to bird photography. Birds tend to be small in the photograph and a bright white sky overwhelms them. When a bird is photographed against a cloudy sky, the underside and plumage details are dark and difficult to see and photograph. When clouds pass to reveal some blue sky, there is usually enough reflected light to highlight the plumage characteristics and the dark silhouette of the bird can burst into color.

Hawks in flight, photograph by Brent VanFossenThe best season for photographing birds in flight is winter, when the snow on the ground and light clolored dead grasses on the ground bounces light up under the wings acting like a natural reflector, creating a soft light even in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, snowy days often feature white cloud-filled skies so consider using the trees and/or grasses as a background if the bird flies low enough.

Birds in flight, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, photograph by Brent VanFossenWhen you can mix an interesting sky and a dramatic landscape, as shown behind these snow geese at Bosque del Apache or the harrier in flight with the clouds and tips of the trees in the background, the drama is not only in the birds’ flight but in the incredible canvas they are flying against. The challenge in photographing birds is not only getting them in the right light against the right background, but also showing enough of the bird to make it identifiable.

Camouflaging Backgrounds

Beetle camouflaged against tree bark, photograph by Brent VanFossenWe love working with patterns and one of the most dramatic patterns is found in the animals and plants which use camouflage techniques to blend in with their surroundings. Since the story of the camouflaging subject is its ability to blend in with its background, you have to include the background as part of the story. The challenge comes in defining the subject against its background when its job is to blend in.

Frog camouflaged against a lichen covered rock, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenLight plays a key role here. Soft even light eliminates the shadows which makes seeing the subject even harder. Working with small subjects like frogs and toads, you can often find a cooperative one that will allow you to use a reflector or diffusion cloth to eliminate the harsh shadows of a bright day. Often, these camouflaging creatures are found within dark forests, and getting the light to them, enough for your photographic exposure, is the challenge.

Side light can often separate a subject from its background if used carefully. The side light can cast a shadow under the subject or highlight one side of the subject in light and the other in shadow to capture the shape of the subject. Take care. Too much shadow may overwhelm the subject or the background and add to the distracting elements.

Be careful if you use flash, as it can either wash out the background or turn it to black. Using fill flash mixed with the ambient light can work to help illuminate the subject, as can reflectors and bouncing the flash off the reflector. If there is distance between the subject and the background, make sure you balance the amount of light on the Hare in winter grasses, photograph by Brent VanFossensubject as well as the background to either lighten or darken the background or even it out accordingly with the amount of light on your subject.

For mammals, make sure the eyes are visible in the photograph and that they have a catch light. This little sparkle can be the trick for the viewer to be drawn in to investigate the sparkle, find the eye, and then slowly trace the lines of the camouflaged animal as it reveals its disguise. The snowshoe hare to the right is lost within the winter grasses except for the eye which captures your attention. From the eye, you slowly follow the trace of the animal in the grasses, noticing the ears, and the imagination fills in the rest of the shape once the recognition is made.

Back to Backgrounds

We’ve looked at a lot of examples of challenges we overcame on the subject of backgrounds. You can learn more about backgrounds, what makes a good background and how to fix the problems that come up when you begin to pay attention to the importance of backgrounds in our photographic composition article on Background Magic.


  • Nivedha Kumar
    Posted August 6, 2005 at 6:10 | Permalink

    Impressive pictures, wonderful backgrounds, beautiful colors

  • Nipu barua
    Posted April 28, 2006 at 4:19 | Permalink

    i want professional photo grapher. what ican do. please good advice me.

  • Posted May 1, 2006 at 0:54 | Permalink

    If you want to hire a professional photographers, be specific with what style of photography you want (wedding, nature, travel, editorial, commercial, etc.) and then search the Internet or phone book in your area under Photographers or Professional Photographers.

    If you want to learn how to become a professional photographer, then check out the articles in our The Business of Nature Photography category.

    Good luck.

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