with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Background Magic Part Two

Specific Crimes of Ignoring the Background

In part one of Background Magic, we looked at what makes a perfect background and what questions to ask yourself as you compose a photograph, and some of the typical techniques used to change, clean, or manipulate the background to improve it. In this section, we cover the specific background crimes committed by photographers when they ignore their backgrounds. These crimes include: distracting backgrounds, overwhelming backgrounds, lost in the background, and the crime of neglecting the foreground. We will also examine the impact of photographic flash on backgrounds and how to make your own artificial backgrounds. Background check!!

Distracting Backgrounds

When the details in the background or foreground attract more attention than the subject, you have a distracting background. The most common distractions are bright objects, dark objects, garbage, and action. Let’s examine each of these.

Bright Objects
Brightly colored or white objects, especially those that are highly reflective, attract attention. No matter how dramatic your main The bright white light in the background is distracting, photograph by Lorelle VanFossensubject is, people will look at the brightest spot in your photograph first. It can be the sun, a piece of out-of-focus trash, a garbage can, a rock – anything that is bright or reflects light. One technique to find distracting things in your background is to unfocus your lens a bit. Anything bright will become a large white blob. Depth of field can make this blob small or large on your final image depending upon how out of focus the blob is. If it is too much, recompose to exclude the distracting element or remove it.
Dark Objects
Dark objects on a dark background disappear in most photographs, but a dark object in a bright background stands out similar to a bright object in a dark background. Pay attention to dark rocks, signs, walls, or anything that attracts attention because it is darker than the surrounding subject matter. A dark blob can form in the areas out of focus due to distance and depth of field. Shifting your lens out of focus or using the depth of field preview will help you detect these dark distractions.
Grizzly bear waves against a background of large tanks and clutter in its enclosure, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenHumans are great creators of trash and they spread it all over the place. It has become such a consistent part of our lives, we forget to pay attention to all the litter around us. It isn’t just bits and pieces of plastic bags, napkins, fast food containers, and candy wrappers. It is the garbage of our lifestyle. Look for phone or electrical wires sweeping across your landscape. Garbage cans are everywhere. Old cars litter the streets. Keep an eye out for all the manmade distractions that litter our lives. Pay attention to them and judge their value inside or outside of your photograph.
My mother specializes in action backgrounds. Our childhood scrapbooks are filled with pictures of me surfing in Hawaii, way out to sea, and a gorgeous young man strutting across the foreground. You only know it is me surfing because my mother has drawn a circle around the dot with an arrow and explanation: Lorelle surfing in Hawaii. Or a picture of my brother playing in the sand with a beautiful couple strolling in the sunset behind him. There is always something else going on in the picture besides the main subject’s action to pull your attention away. One of my mother's special family pictures starring her big toe and her husband, a speck in the scene, photo by Ramona Fletcher.What is going on behind your main subject? If it is part of the story, fine, but if it isn’t, then it can grab the attention away from your subject. If there is movement in the background and the subject is still and the shutter speed slow, the movement can be even more accentuated. Photographing in populated areas, like busy farmers’ markets or cities, it is difficult to get away from the action around your subject. Nature subjects can also include action such as the wind blowing flowers and trees around, or animals moving behind the animal you are photographing. Either think of a way to incorporate the action into your story, or recompose or wait for the action to stop.

Overwhelming Backgrounds

Backgrounds can go from distracting to overwhelming quite easily, and are often ignored by the photographer. An overwhelming background does more than just grab the attention away from the subject, it leaves it lost in the foreground. Overwhelming backgrounds can be caused by too many points or subjects in your photograph, light and shadows attracting too much attention, a too bright or too dark background, or an inappropriate background which may distract from the story of the photograph.

Too Many Subjects
Interior designers and artists often talk about the “three things or less” guide. We call it the “three strikes and you’re out” rule. To avoid the tennis game syndrome or any bouncing around of the eye in your photograph, try to keep three or fewer main subjects in the photograph. To count these, look at what is most important in your photograph. Is it the main subject, the foreground and the background? Is it the main subject, a second subject, and the background? Or is it the main subject, a second subject, a third subject, and forty other bits and pieces of subjects?

Getting out the vote in a mall in Tel Aviv, this picture has so many stories and action going on, its difficult to find the main subject, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenIn the photograph to the right, I took a picture of the Haradim, ultra-orthodox Jews, standing at a table assisting other Jews to pray. Their table was set up outside of one of the largest and busiest shopping malls in Tel Aviv. I wanted to show the extreme contrast of modern Israel vs. old world Israel. Do you see the story I wanted to tell? No. I was so caught up in what interested me that I ignored the motorcyles, election posters, and all the typical distractions moving in and out of the mall. With no central subject, the viewer cannot tell the important point from the rest of the clutter.

Look at the greatest and most memorable photographs in history. Even if the main subject was surrounded by a crowd, the crowd becomes its own subject, separate from the rest. How many subjects or stories are in your photograph? Too many can confuse the viewer and make for a distracting image.

Light and Shadows
Shadows are so graphically impressive, they often become an important part of the photograph. Yet, we are so accustomed to seeing shadows and light as we look through our day, our brain filters them out. The camera doesn’t. The camera sees it all. When shadows fill the background or foreground of a photograph and they aren’t part of the story, they can overwhelm the image. They can either separate the subject from its background or flood it. Watch closely for shadows on your subject that might blend into the shadows in the background, creating strange graphic shapes that blend together in the photograph.

An elk sits in harsh light and shadows, photo by Brent VanFossenAn elk sits in overcast light, Jasper, Alberta, photo by Brent VanFossenThe middle of the day finds the sun overhead casting dark contrasting shadows into the bright light, often disguising wildlife in the forest, and filling our images with distracting elements. In the example here, on the left, Brent photographed an elk resting in the forest of Jasper, Alberta, in Canada. The shadows make the elk almost invisible as they stripe across the large mammal. For a few minutes, a cloud passed over the sun and Brent was able to get the photograph he really wanted of the elk. The animal is now distinguishable from the forest and the shadows, the background now a complementary part of the photo.

Too Bright and Too Dark
The bright white low clouds overwhelm the deer and are just too bright. Photograph by Lorelle VanFossenSimilar to inappropriate backgrounds, when the background is too bright or too dark in general, it can overwhelm a subject. We like to look at the brightest things first, like the sun or a big white blob. A dark subject against a bright background puts all the attention on the bright background and it can make it hard to look at the darker subject. There needs to be a compromise in tonality, in the shifts between bright and dark. The extremes hurt our eyes and make us feel uncomfortable when viewing the photograph. White backgrounds, such as the fog in the photograph of the deer to the right, can be the “kiss of death” composition. Dark backgrounds tend to work fine, but forget white backgrounds as they typically overwhelm the subject.
Inappropriate Backgrounds
An elk grazing in the front lawn of a home is appropriate for a story about the urbanization of elk in rural communities, but it is inappropriate for a story on elk in the wild. Manmade subjects creep into the background and foreground of our nature images all the time, and we are always fighting their When the story is of the zoo and enclosure, include it like with this wolf rubbing against the fence at Wolf Haven, photograph by Lorelle VanFosseninclusion, but seriously inappropriate backgrounds can spoil a picture, unless the story is about the background.

We’ve done a lot of work photographing in zoos and enclosures, taking advantage of the opportunity to get close and photograph wildlife not easy accessible or that is vulnerable in the wild. Yet, people want to see images of wildlife, and not the windows, paths, walls, and artificial elements in the enclosure area. Same goes for game farms, rent-a-wildlife, and conservatories. If the photograph is about the wildlife in the zoo, include the fence or enclosure. If it isn’t, don’t. Pay attention to how appropriate the background is to your picture.

Lost In The Background

As your depth of field narrows, your background becomes even more important and critical to the success of the image. The background becomes even more important in close up or macro photography because the smallest parts of your subject now become big players and they can become lost in the background. Pay close attention to the details in your background and around your subject.

the strong black backgroundcauses the black parts like antenna to disappear, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenPhotographing dark subjects against a light background or the reverse helps the subject stand out against its background. But photographing dark subjects against dark backgrounds (or the reverse) may lose the subject within its background. Small animals often have black whiskers and insects have dark or black legs and antenna which disappear into black backgrounds. These delicate parts of your subject need a constrasting background so they can remain visible.

A subject photographed within a busy and distracting background, especially when working with small closeup subjects, is overwhelmed by the textures, shapes, and distractions. Look for soft colors and calm backgrounds for small subjects, especially with insects and flowers with intricate patterns and details that cry to be seen and not lost.

A soft blurred green background allows all the delicate details like antenna be visible, photograph by Brent VanFossenWorking in a confined environment like a zoo, conservatory or studio can help restrict the animal and can give you the time to choose more favorable backgrounds and lighting situations, but working in the field is much harder. You have to not only think about your subject, but the background as well. It takes a lot of trial and error to get all the pieces of the puzzle to come together: a great subject against a perfect background.

The Crime Of Neglecting The Foreground

If your background is perfect for your subject, what about the foreground? The crimes of neglecting the foreground can be just as bad as neglecting the background. The crimes themselves are the same. If a subject is too dark, too light, inappropriate, or busy, it can pull attention away from your subject.

One of the biggest crimes is when your subject is looking at the distracting element in front of them. If it is part of the story, fine, but when it isn’t, it only moves the viewer’s eye away from the subject towards the distracting element. It’s even worse when the subject is inadvertently pointing at the subject. It seems to say to the viewer, “Hey, the photographer wanted to make sure you saw this!” If the element has no value to the viewer other than being a distraction, the photographer has neglected the foreground.

The deer appears to look right at the out of focus stick in the foreground, and so will the viewer as they follow the eyes. Photograph by Brent VanFossen, Yosemit National ParkIn the photograph to the right, Brent photographed a black-tailed deer in Yosemite National Park and almost missed the out-of-focus branch sneaking into the foreground. It didn’t help that the deer was looking right at the branch, as if to call out “hey, did you miss something?” By simply stepping to the side, Brent was able to shift the branch out of the foreground and still improve the photograph.

Crab spider in a flower, waiting for dinner, with an out of focus lumpine in the foreground, photograph by Brent VanFossenForegrounds are part of the framing of the photograph. What lies within this frontal area can lead the eye to your subject or away. If the foreground is cluttered, clean it up. Feel free to move a stick or distracting piece of dry yellow grass in the foreground. Or use the elements in the photograph to enhance the subject, as with this crab spider in the lupine framed by the out-of-focus lupine flowers. The wash of color directs the eye to the spider instead of distracting the viewer from it. Become like a painter, paying equal attention to what you include as well as what you exclude from your masterpiece.

Flash and the Background

Working with low light conditions, this daddy long legs spider required the use of a flash, but it works with the black background because spiders are associated with dark places, photograph by Brent VanFossenFlash changes the background. Electronic flash creates a bright white light, usually overwhelming any ambient light on the subject. It’s usually easy to spot a flash photograph. It’s the one with the completely black background, as the flash lets out a burst of light and the light can only travel so far. As it passes the subject, the light dissipates, lacking the strength to illuminate anything behind the subject outside the range of the flash. This intense black background can isolate and frame your subject, creating a very simple backdrop, but it can also overwhelm your subject, or cause any dark areas on the subject to blend into the black background. It can also look artificial.

There are times when the black background works for the subject. In the photograph to the right, Brent used flash to capture this daddy long-legs spider and it works since spiders are often found in dark places and the dark background is appropriate.

Flash doesn’t always have to be used at full strength. Using a lesser percentage of flash is called balanced flash or fill flash. By using less than the full percentage of the flash’s capability, you can combine the flash with the ambient light. Therefore, the flash will give you enough light to illuminate your subject, and your exposure is still long enough to allow the ambient light to illuminate the background. Fill flash is almost the same, with the ambient light giving the main exposure and the flash filling in the shadows.

Fiddlehead fern photographed using full flash. Photograph by Brent VanFossenLet’s examine this process with a fiddlehead fern in a dimly lit forest. We needed to use the flash because the wind was blowing just enough, and the light level was so low, we’d end up with a blurry picture of the fern moving in the wind over the several second exposure. So we photographed it first with flash. Notice the reflections of the flash light on the hairs of the fern. The green color of the fern appears to be darker than our eyes “saw” the color. The fern stands out against the black background, but it is almost overwhelmed in constrast.

Fiddlehead Fern photogrpahed using fill flash. Photograph by Brent VanFossenBy estimating the amount of fill flash needed to increase our shutter speed time to stop the movement of the fern in the wind, Brent added just enough flash to combine with the ambient light to create a more “natural” photograph. The green background is more appropriate for the fern’s habitat and the harsh sparkles and dark green tones of the fern are now gone. The green against green works here because the background is still a bit darker green than the fern, giving a bit of contrast.

Which one do you like better? They are both good pictures, but they serve different photographic purposes and tell different stories because of the change in the background.

Artificial Backgrounds

Simple setup studio in our living room with flowers arranged against an artifical background and using a reflector to bounce natural light onto the subject.When you don’t have a longer lens, and your background isn’t cooperating, you can use an artificial background. This is simply something used to replace the background in your image. We’ve used a variety of clothing items like shirts or jackets, or our camera bag, or whatever we have with us.

Flower photographed against an artificial background, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThere are many different kinds of backgrounds you can make out of different fabrics and materials. The colors should look like the natural habitat or background of your subject, and they need to be made to look like they are out of focus. Using clearly defined borders between colors will create blobs of color in the background if you are using a shallow depth of field. But one of the key reasons to use an artificial background, especially with closeup subjects, is to increase your depth of field without worrying about the background being in focus. By blurring and softening the background color shifts, you are creating an out-of-focus background without worrying about your depth of field.

Example color scheme of a natural green backgroundWork with colors and tones that recreate a smooth, out-of-focus, natural looking background. Desert plants or animals require a desert looking background using dried up yellow, tan, and sandy brown colors. Subjects like flowers and animals found in grasslands need brighter green and yellow colors. Subjects like frogs and some insects are found in dark forests, so choose dark green and brown tones, the darker tones of the forest. A variety of green tones with a hint of yellow blurred in creates a layered depth impression as not all leaves are the same color but shades of green with hints of browns and reds sometimes. A hint of yellow adds a bit of sunlight to the blur of color.

Using an artificial background for photographing shrimp in a small aquarium, photograph by Brent VanFossenMaking your own artificial background isn’t hard. We’ve created backgrounds with fabric and dyes, We’ve used a plywood board and painted it to resemble a fairly natural looking background. Be sure and carefully blend the colors while still damp or as you spray to soften the lines between the shifts of colors. Don’t be afraid to blend them over and over again, running one into the other to soften the lines. We’ve found fabric works well, and folds up easily for travel. You can become fairly creative with designing your own background and you become more sensitive to the ones you see through your viewfinder.

Back to Backgrounds

We’ve discussed how critical backgrounds are to your composition, and looked at a variety of ways to improve your backgrounds. We go even further in our discussion of backgrounds by looking at some specific issues we’ve faced overcoming the challenge of backgrounds in our Behind the Scenes section in the article on “Behind the Background Magic”.

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