with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Background Magic

We are often so caught up in the excitement of photographing the subject, we often forget the single most important element that can make or break our photograph: the background. The background, and in its own way the foreground, can accentuate or completely distract from your subject. How many times have you gotten back vacation pictures and found a brilliant photo of your loved ones smiling and laughing with a tree branch growing out of their heads? All the attention is on their new set of antlers and not on the joy of the moment. Background can make all the difference in a successful photograph.

In our article on playing Sherlock Holmes, Photo Detective, we discussed many of the crimes committed by photographers to ruin photographs, and looked at some in-depth analysis of backgrounds in “Behind the Background Magic” in our Behind the Scenes section. Now, we take you even deeper into the background and study some photographic crimes committed by ignoring the importance of background.

In this two part series, we explore various background crimes such as 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. Before we get to the crimes in part two of this series on background magic, let’s look at what makes a perfect background.

A Perfect Background

Digital Fixing
With the simplicity of digital cameras, it is easy to fix the background or foreground of any photograph. You can put your entire family in front of a beach in Hawaii even though you’ve never been there. Or you can dab and doodle to fix or remove a bit of trash or bright spot. While fixing your photographic mistakes with software is easy, it helps to do it right in the first place. By paying attention to the details that make or break a good photograph in the beginning, you can spend more time photographing and having fun than stuck behind a computer poking and pruning.

Including the background in the photograph of the big horn sheep tells part of the story of the habitat the animal lives in. Photograph by Brent VanFossenA perfect background doesn’t just happen. Attention is paid to it. For a moment or two, the photographer lets his or her attention drift from the main subject to the background and foreground to give it serious consideration. The eye should sweep back and forth across the viewfinder, examining all the items inside the frame. Then it should move around the inside edge of the frame, checking for any little bits sneaking into the frame from the edges. When time is available, some photographers using zoom lenses will pull back on the zoom a bit to see if there is anything that might sneak into the frame and then re-zoom into the final position. Take While the many droplets on these grass stems seem cluttered and busy, the soft green background lights the string of drops like necklaces. Photograph by Brent VanFossena second to lift your eye from the viewfinder to check for anything moving into or out of your background that could be distracting or in the way, and check the scene to see if it still matches what you want in the viewfinder. Then take a last long sweeping look around the viewfinder, considering each element, before you press the shutter. After some practice, this effort will become second nature to you.

As you examine the elements inside the viewfinder and out, here are a few of the thoughts that should go through your head:

What’s Out There?
What is in the background? What is out beyond your subject that might be worth looking at? If you look at it, the odds are that the viewer will look at it. What is there? Is it a bright light, garbage, strange shapes, trees that look like they are coming out of someone’s head? Are other people walking by? Is there some action going on like movement or things blowing in the wind? Pay attention to all the details of what is out there surrounding your subject.
Is it Distracting?
This small bird is surrounded by the clutter of leaves, but to the viewer, the leaves represent one subject and not a lot of distractions. Photograph by Brent VanFossenThe things that are in the background of any photograph might be important to the story of the photograph, but if it isn’t, how distracting is it? Is it small enough not to matter or is it brightly colored enough that it will attract attention? Is it a brighter or darker color than the background or the subject? How much attention does it attract? Is the amount of attention greater or less than your main subject?
Does It Help or Hinder?
In the upper right corner is a bright bit of light. Does this help or hinder the story of the photograph? Is it small enough to not matter, or does it hold your attention? Photograph of squirrel in tree by Brent VanFossenSome backgrounds help your subject, while others ruin it. How does the background interact with the subject? Should it? Is the background habitat critical to the story of the subject? Or should it be easily ignored and not part of the story? If your subject is a part of the background or is looking at the background, then the background helps the subject as it is part of the story of the photograph. But if the background is merely a detail in the photographic story, ask yourself if it helps or hinders the story you are telling.
Do I Have to Show The Whole Background?
Aquariums and underwater surroundings can be cluttered. Isolating this clownfish as it swims in the anenomes removes the clutter and isolates the fish, photograph by Brent VanFossenSometimes the background is part of the story, and sometimes showing less of it gives the photograph more power, more importance in the story. How much of the background can you leave out and how should you do that?
What Are My Options for Cleaning Up The Background?
What are my choices here? What can I do to eliminate the distracting elements or background crimes? What will it involve? Changing my exposure and depth of field? Stepping to the side, moving up or moving down with my position, changing focal lengths to change the lens perspective? Using a flash? Not using a flash? Cleaning up the environment? Repositioning the subject?

You are starting to get the picture about how important the background is to your photography, aren’t you? Remember you are telling a story with every photograph you take and the background is part of the story you are telling.

Fixing the Background

To fix the background of your photograph, you need to understand the photographic theory of image compression, the process of how lenses see (lens perspective), seeing what the eyes see, and then using the different techniques available to you to recompose or change the scene to improve your background.

Photography turns a three dimensional world into a flat one dimensional image. Depending upon the lens perspective, the combination of optics and focal lengths you are using, the aperture, and the distance to your subject and to the background, things in the distance can suddenly become very close when flattened into a photograph. This is usually the cause of the tree growing out of the head, when the tree is meters away in the background but the photograph is compressed so the branches look like they are growing right out of the skull.

200mm lens and marmotLens perspective is the view of the scene, including the background, that is captured onto the film through the lens. A wide angle lens sees a wider angle of view, therefore it captures a wider perspective. A long telephoto lens sees a very narrow view, therefore it captures a narrow perspective. In these three photographs of a marmot in the Olympic National Park, we kept our subject, the cooperative marmot, basically the same size in the frame. 300mm lens and marmotWe’ve moved either further or closer to our subject and changed the focal length of the lens to change our background, since different focal lengths change the background perspective behind the subject. Across the valley, more than a mile away, rose a mountain with the last of the winter’s patches of snow on its steep sides. A 200mm lens, the shortest lens used in this series of pohtos, sees a lot of the background. You can see the snow on the far mountain, though it’s not clear if the white blobs are snow, clouds, or cartoon thoughts coming from the marmot.

500mm lens and marmotBrent changed to a 300mm lens and moved farther back from the marmot to keep him about the same size in the frame. The 300mm lens sees a bit narrower perspective than the 200mm, so the white snow is just a blurry bit in the corner. Moving even further back, Brent changed to a 500mm lens with its very narrow perspective and the white snow packs are gone and the marmot is isolated against a green background.

Using this technique and understanding how the lens “sees” and change the background perspective, you can isolate your subject against a more interesting or appropriate background by simply changing lenses. This opens up your options on background composition.

Another Background and Lens Perspective Example

Thistles using a 55mm and wide background perspectivethistles using a 200mm lens and narrow background perspectiveIn this example, we set up a dried teasal in the backyard. A wider angle lens like a 55mm requires a close working distance to photograph the subject and, as it sees a wider perspective, captures a lot of background. We see the out-of-focus parking lot and buildings in behind as well as the green grass. By moving backward from the subject, keeping it the same size in our viewfinder and not changing the exposure, we increase the magnification by using a longer lens such as a 200mm. Longer lenses narrow their view so you see a narrower perspective of the background. Now, only the green grass in the background is visible, isolating the subject against a neutral and undistracting background. Using a longer lens can help you to choose your background.

 

The Eyes Have It

Brent and his friend, Fred the Deer, look off in the same direction, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenPay close attention to the interaction between the subject and the background. From the earliest moments of life, most animals and humans are taught to watch the eyes. The eyes send and receive messages constantly, warning of friend or foe, and ensuring survival. The eyes play two crucial roles in the photographic composition for backgrounds. Eyes in the photograph attract the immediate attention of the viewer and tell them where to look, and the way a viewer’s eyes move around a photograph adds to the artistic quality of the photograph.

Coyote looks to the side among dried grasses of fall, photograph by Brent VanFossenViewers look at eyes. They pay attention to how they look and where they look. If the subject is looking at the viewer, the direction of the view is outwards. If the subject is looking at the foreground or background of the photograph, the viewer will follow the subject’s eye direction and look there. What is the subject looking at? What will the viewer look at? This becomes your second subject. Is it at some element that is part of the story, like a child looking at a flower, or is the subject looking at a distracting element that shouldn’t be in the photograph, calling the attention away from the subject and towards the unwanted element?

The “concert of the eye” is the movement the eye takes as it looks at a photograph. Bull’s Eye Syndrome locks the eye in the center of the photograph and holds it there, unable to move away. Tennis Game Syndrome bounces the eye back and forth between two subjects of equal importance, like a tennis match. Anarchy is when the eye looks at so many things in a photograph, it doesn’t know what it is looking at and the viewer is usually uncomfortable.

Before pressing the shutter, look thoroughly through the viewfinder to watch where your eye goes. Does it bounce around or stay fixed in one place. Does it focus on a subject and then wander around and return to rest? Notice the subject in relationship to everything in the foreground and background. Is there anything competing for the attention of the viewer in addition to the main subject? Pay close attention to what is worth looking at in the photograph, and clear away all the distractions that grab the eye’s attention.

Background Fixing Techniques

The following are some of the basic techniques for fixing problem backgrounds.

Change the Background: Step Aside
The blossoms in this tree echo each other in the background creating a romantic effect, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenAre you commited to this background? Can you move your subject or move with your subject to a more interesting background choice? By simply changing your position, you can completely change the background. Step to the side, drop to your knees, stand taller, find a position that shifts the background to improve it. Re-examine the background carefully within the viewfinder as repositioning can invite new intruders into your frame. If you are limited in your movement, can the background be moved? In the two photographs shown here of fruit tree blossoms, a Photographing the same blossoms, a step to the side lets the green grass background take over, changing the quality of the photograph, photograph by Lorelle VanFossensimple step to the side changed the background completely, from using the other blossoms in the tree as the background to the out-of-focus green grass beyond the tree as the background. The background impacts the story and the character of the photograph.
Clean Up
If you can remove the distracting element, do so. Pick up the garbage, move the distracting thing, or ask someone to step out of your picture. Take the initiative to clean it up. Not everything in a photograph has to be there and you have the creative choice to include or remove it.
Wait for the Light to Change
Some of the distractions come with the light: shadows and bright spots fade away when a cloud passes in front of the sun. When working in brightly lit situations, watch for opportunities to photograph either in the shade or when weather changes affect the light, improving things by removing distractions. Nature photographers tend to photograph at the early morning and late afternoon times when the light comes from the side and is enhanced by the different layers or atmosphere it passes through, changing the color of the light. This is also when the light is softer and shadows work for your subject rather than overwhelm it.
Remove the Background
The background at the zoo was cluttered and distracting, so we moved in close for a full-frame portrait, removing the background. Photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThere are many ways to remove the background by changing the focal length of your lens, adjusting the aperture and depth of field, or simply recomposing so the background is minimized or gone, with all the attention on your subject. There are many times when you don’t want any form of background within your composition, such as when photographing wildlife within a cluttered zoo or enclosure area or working on flowers next to a busy road or housing project. Sometimes you don’t want the clutter in the background to intrude and all you want is the subject. Then fill the frame with the subject or use a technique that reduces the background to a non-event – invisible and undistracting to the viewer.
Keep It Simple
The green of the surrounding plants create a soft background for a simple daisy, photograph by Brent VanFossenMore than anything, the simpler your photograph, the less subjects and less distractions, the more impressive and powerful it is. Sometimes a dozen roses is a powerful statement, but a single rose can mean even more. Look at how you can adjust the background and foreground to simplify your subject, making it stand alone or be framed by its surroundings and not overwhelmed. It can be balanced against everything else in your viewfinder. Just remember, the simpler the better.

NEXT? Dealing With Distractions and Problem-Solving Background Issues

Need More Background Magic
Explore more about backgrounds and learn how to create the lovely soft blurs of colors, to add a sense of scale and drama, and more through the creative use of backgrounds in a new Behind the Scenes section on backgrounds.

We’ve looked at the elements of what makes a perfect background and some of the techniques used to arrange and change your backgrounds in this part.

In part two, we look at some crimes committed by photographers by ignoring the importance of background. 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.

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