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5 Ways Backgrounds Make or Break Photos

Looking at your background when composing your photo is as important if not more important than looking at your subject. Photographers have a knack for visually filtering out everything but their primary focus when taking a photo. While this is great at times it also is a detriment in that unwanted background elements are only seen after the fact. This can prove to be frustrating as a photographer and jarring as a viewer. Below are 5 ways to think about backgrounds so as to improve your photography.

1.  Visual Distractions

One question that you can ask yourself that will allow you to capture a substantially larger number of “keeper” photos is, “What is around my subject that people will see?”.  Asking this question as you compose your image will allow you to take note of distracting elements that might otherwise go ignored. As you keep this question in mind look for and avoid unwanted contrasty shapes, color and objects that intersect with your subject.  Looking for cleaner and more interesting backgrounds to add polish to your photos.
Portrait of Blake - Photography by Jim M. Goldstein

2. Depth of Field

Employing a shallow depth of field by using a larger aperture will blur your background. Employing deeper depth of focus may introduce distracting details that are not critical to your photo.  A background that is blurred and lacking detail will allow your viewers to focus on your well focused subject. It’s amazing how well this works, but you’ll still need to be conscious of Tip #1 as it is not a magic bullet.
Paws and Claws - Photo by Jim M. Goldstein

3. Define A Physical Location & Setting

Use background objects to give your viewers a sense of location and/or meaning. Carefully composing your subject so that you can see relevant background objects will help communicate a broader story. A graduate with an iconic university building in the background, a family with the Golden Gate Bridge behind them, or a unique desert plant with sand dunes are all more meaningful with their respective backgrounds as they tell you more about the significance of the primary subject.
Under the Rainbow - Photo by Jim M. Goldstein

4. Define Your Subject with Lighting Contrasts

There is certainly a time and a place to use a studio background, but when outdoors lighting contrasts can really help place emphasis on your subject. Shooting a well lit person against a dark background can add pop to your image. Use lighting contrasts to your advantage and keep an eye out for differentials in lighting to exploit this effect.

5. Compose & Zoom With Your Feet

It’s very easy to mentally lock in on your photo subject and lose sight of everything else. As you compose your photo(s) move around to determine where you can place yourself to get the best background. Don’t just rely on a zoom lens to do this, your feet are both your best friend and #1 photo gear accessory
Photography by Jim M. Goldstein

 

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Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

  • http://bit.ly/oufr4c gnslngr45

    When I look back on the photos I took before purchasing a dSLR, I find that the biggest distraction and issue with my old photos are the background. A clean background or a very shallow depth of field would have made a tremendous difference.

    flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula
  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com ErikKerstenbeck

    Hi

    Great article! Sometimes background can be foreground and vice versa, like in the reflective shot of some old sewing machines in a window display in Chicago!

    Cheers, Erik

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com ErikKerstenbeck
  • http://custompinoyrides.com THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com

    Hahaha! Thi is so true! Especially in my field of photograpy.

    I do Car Photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    As they say, car photography is essentially landscape photography, with the car as the subject. I stick to that and you’ll see it in a lot of my photos.

  • http://jasoncollinphotography.com Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    Great post Jim on something that is seemingly very simple, but definitely can make or break any given photo. Using shallow DoF and creating bokeh is maybe the most obvious way of making a clean background, but I like how you also mentioned how the background can define the location, or put the subject into context.

    Even when using a shallow DoF, I still consider the overall color of the bokeh that will be created to best compliment the subject. In these shots of a great egret (which is white), I looked for the darkest cloud background available at that time to make the egret stand out:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/3/14/great-egret-flying-in-st-petersburg-florida-bird-photography.html

  • cathode

    Biggest distraction in these photos isn’t the backgrounds… it’s the obnoxious watermarks.

  • Jarkel

    Nice article, I have seen many photo’s where the person taking the photo has not paid attention to the subject and the background. So you see lamp growing out of people’s heads, Tree branch’s cutting though a subject. I also agree with the move your feet part and don’t just zoom in. With digital photography now people just think shot and I will crop it or edit it. I started on 35mm and you always had to think of doing the cropping when you are taking the photo… I feel this is a lost art now not practised my many people.

    Happy shooting everyone! :)

  • lukin42

    Sometimes a bad photoshop job is more visually distracting than a windowsill in the background.

  • http://www.frozenevent.com Laurie

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about photography was based on a comment about the difference between photography and painting.

    When a painter starts on a canvas, they look at the scene , and decide what to INCLUDE on the canvas

    When a photographer takes a photo, they look at a scene, and need to decide what to EXCLUE from the photo.

    So as photographers we need to learn to ask what we want to leave out of a scene. I find this way of thinking makes it much easier to ensure the backgrounds are clean, and distraction free.

  • Scottc

    Incredible photos to drive this key point home! Background is “everything” in a photo except the subject.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5761819590/

  • Mei Teng

    Tip #5 is a good one. Thanks for the reminder.

  • raghavendra

    I said this long back ago,
    it is interesting that i have the same thoughts

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2011/12/10-simple-tips-for-better-mobile.html

  • Average Joe

    All very true! Though on the first example, I rather like the window in the background.

  • http://dsdphotography.co.za Dewan Demmer

    I used a prime for a while and this meant I became the zoom, and while I loved the photos I did realise that I was doing a lot more leg room than I need to.
    Now I have a series of photos where the background is changing, as we moved from one area to another … with these changed I worked to keep the model the focus while keep as much of the background as I could. The background can help tell a story, give the picture purpose or meaning … sometimes its the models does it all.
    http://dsdphotography.co.za/bridal-wedding-photoshoot-%E2%80%93-palazzo-hotel-%E2%80%93-monte-casino-%E2%80%93-johannesburg-%E2%80%93-part-ii/

  • http://www.nikijonesphotography.com Niki Jones

    Couldn’t agree more with the DOP comment. This is one of my favourite portraits I have taken using shallow DOP http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikijones/5329361645/in/set-72157625400202446

  • http://www.haydenmurtagh.co.uk Hayden

    Hi

    As an amateur photographer i find examples of a good shot and a bad shot very useful – this allows us amateurs to get better. Great article and will be practising.

  • Darin

    What happened to the baby’s chair back in photo # 1? It looks a bit unnatural without the finishing touches on it.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/harebaremi/ Tim

    Great points, all. I can spot an inexperienced photographer more from the background than the foreground.

    /manta on
    Think about the overall image. Not just the subject!
    /mantra off

    ;)

  • http://www.jmg-galleries.com/ Jim Goldstein

    @lukin42 indeed. I had the same thought, but in this case it was just to show as an example not make the cover of a magazine.

    @average joe same. I left the window sill in the final image. I was on the fence on how to explain the modified background for the example… it was just to show an example ultimately.

    @darin agreed see my comments above. The masking could use some feathering/smoothing. I think it has come across a little harsher in the resize to a smaller image.

  • http://www.jmg-galleries.com/ Jim Goldstein

    @Jason St. Petersburg Photographer color contrasts are a great way to make your subject pop. Great example you’ve shared.

  • http://www.jmg-galleries.com/ Jim Goldstein

    @Dewan Demmer as you point out backgrounds are critical to wedding photographs. Great photos.

  • Clayton

    Good tips. I had this problem a while ago when I first started snapping photos seriously. I was so concerned about aperture and the technical mumbo jumbo that I didn’t give backgrounds enough attention. I wrote something similar about the use of lines in photos… http://clayton-mclaughlin.com/photography/quick-tip-watch-your-lines/

  • http://www.whitepetal.co.uk PaulB

    All good tips, I work as a wedding photographer and often try to exclude the sky, it’s suprising how it can add impact to your photos.

  • Robby T

    Good advice but you cut out the first picture with the child and put it on another back ground. Not a good cut out as the hair has been cut also!!

  • http://www.charlysworld.com Carlos

    I totally agree with Lukin42 – a bad photoshop job can actually make things worse. However I understand the OP’s intention on picture #1 is to show that distractions on the background are a problem.

    htpp://www.charlysworld.com

  • http://www.blueskyphotography.net.au Benn

    Background and depth of field are probably the biggest steps a beginning photographer can master( other than light:)). It sounds so simple but learning to see beyond the subject can take a while and once mastered will make a huge difference to the images you take.

  • http://366andallthat.wordpress.com/ MikeC366

    Great article Jim. Some sound advice there. My biggest problem with shooting a compact till a couple of weeks ago was DOF. Just the ability to shoot at a lower DOF due to the sensor size has massively enhanced my workflow, No longer do I have to create my DOFs. It’s wonderful. Here is a recent example: http://wp.me/p268wp-4e There is no way I could have taken this shot before.

    Also I have to add a number 6 to your list, if I may. Negative space. The correct use of which can really reduce the distractions from the main subject in a photo. Here is one I took recently that shows what I mean: http://wp.me/p268wp-42. By utilising negative space, it focuses the viewer completely on the subject, and what that may mean to them.

    Just my two penny worth. Thanks again for a great article.

    Mike.

Some older comments

  • MikeC366

    February 6, 2012 08:38 am

    Great article Jim. Some sound advice there. My biggest problem with shooting a compact till a couple of weeks ago was DOF. Just the ability to shoot at a lower DOF due to the sensor size has massively enhanced my workflow, No longer do I have to create my DOFs. It's wonderful. Here is a recent example: http://wp.me/p268wp-4e There is no way I could have taken this shot before.

    Also I have to add a number 6 to your list, if I may. Negative space. The correct use of which can really reduce the distractions from the main subject in a photo. Here is one I took recently that shows what I mean: http://wp.me/p268wp-42. By utilising negative space, it focuses the viewer completely on the subject, and what that may mean to them.

    Just my two penny worth. Thanks again for a great article.

    Mike.

  • Benn

    January 25, 2012 03:14 pm

    Background and depth of field are probably the biggest steps a beginning photographer can master( other than light:)). It sounds so simple but learning to see beyond the subject can take a while and once mastered will make a huge difference to the images you take.

  • Carlos

    January 20, 2012 01:55 am

    I totally agree with Lukin42 - a bad photoshop job can actually make things worse. However I understand the OP's intention on picture #1 is to show that distractions on the background are a problem.

    htpp://www.charlysworld.com

  • Robby T

    January 18, 2012 02:02 am

    Good advice but you cut out the first picture with the child and put it on another back ground. Not a good cut out as the hair has been cut also!!

  • PaulB

    January 14, 2012 06:27 am

    All good tips, I work as a wedding photographer and often try to exclude the sky, it's suprising how it can add impact to your photos.

  • Clayton

    January 13, 2012 01:45 pm

    Good tips. I had this problem a while ago when I first started snapping photos seriously. I was so concerned about aperture and the technical mumbo jumbo that I didn't give backgrounds enough attention. I wrote something similar about the use of lines in photos... http://clayton-mclaughlin.com/photography/quick-tip-watch-your-lines/

  • Jim Goldstein

    January 13, 2012 11:56 am

    @Dewan Demmer as you point out backgrounds are critical to wedding photographs. Great photos.

  • Jim Goldstein

    January 13, 2012 11:54 am

    @Jason St. Petersburg Photographer color contrasts are a great way to make your subject pop. Great example you've shared.

  • Jim Goldstein

    January 13, 2012 11:51 am

    @lukin42 indeed. I had the same thought, but in this case it was just to show as an example not make the cover of a magazine.

    @average joe same. I left the window sill in the final image. I was on the fence on how to explain the modified background for the example... it was just to show an example ultimately.

    @darin agreed see my comments above. The masking could use some feathering/smoothing. I think it has come across a little harsher in the resize to a smaller image.

  • Tim

    January 13, 2012 10:13 am

    Great points, all. I can spot an inexperienced photographer more from the background than the foreground.

    /manta on
    Think about the overall image. Not just the subject!
    /mantra off

    ;)

  • Darin

    January 13, 2012 09:36 am

    What happened to the baby's chair back in photo # 1? It looks a bit unnatural without the finishing touches on it.

  • Hayden

    January 12, 2012 03:25 am

    Hi

    As an amateur photographer i find examples of a good shot and a bad shot very useful - this allows us amateurs to get better. Great article and will be practising.

  • Niki Jones

    January 12, 2012 12:48 am

    Couldn't agree more with the DOP comment. This is one of my favourite portraits I have taken using shallow DOP http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikijones/5329361645/in/set-72157625400202446

  • Dewan Demmer

    January 11, 2012 09:48 pm

    I used a prime for a while and this meant I became the zoom, and while I loved the photos I did realise that I was doing a lot more leg room than I need to.
    Now I have a series of photos where the background is changing, as we moved from one area to another ... with these changed I worked to keep the model the focus while keep as much of the background as I could. The background can help tell a story, give the picture purpose or meaning ... sometimes its the models does it all.
    http://dsdphotography.co.za/bridal-wedding-photoshoot-%E2%80%93-palazzo-hotel-%E2%80%93-monte-casino-%E2%80%93-johannesburg-%E2%80%93-part-ii/

  • Average Joe

    January 11, 2012 02:12 pm

    All very true! Though on the first example, I rather like the window in the background.

  • raghavendra

    January 11, 2012 01:55 pm

    I said this long back ago,
    it is interesting that i have the same thoughts

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2011/12/10-simple-tips-for-better-mobile.html

  • Mei Teng

    January 11, 2012 12:05 pm

    Tip #5 is a good one. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Scottc

    January 11, 2012 11:49 am

    Incredible photos to drive this key point home! Background is "everything" in a photo except the subject.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5761819590/

  • Laurie

    January 11, 2012 11:11 am

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about photography was based on a comment about the difference between photography and painting.

    When a painter starts on a canvas, they look at the scene , and decide what to INCLUDE on the canvas

    When a photographer takes a photo, they look at a scene, and need to decide what to EXCLUE from the photo.

    So as photographers we need to learn to ask what we want to leave out of a scene. I find this way of thinking makes it much easier to ensure the backgrounds are clean, and distraction free.

  • lukin42

    January 11, 2012 06:21 am

    Sometimes a bad photoshop job is more visually distracting than a windowsill in the background.

  • Jarkel

    January 11, 2012 05:04 am

    Nice article, I have seen many photo's where the person taking the photo has not paid attention to the subject and the background. So you see lamp growing out of people's heads, Tree branch's cutting though a subject. I also agree with the move your feet part and don't just zoom in. With digital photography now people just think shot and I will crop it or edit it. I started on 35mm and you always had to think of doing the cropping when you are taking the photo... I feel this is a lost art now not practised my many people.

    Happy shooting everyone! :)

  • cathode

    January 11, 2012 04:55 am

    Biggest distraction in these photos isn't the backgrounds... it's the obnoxious watermarks.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    January 11, 2012 04:31 am

    Great post Jim on something that is seemingly very simple, but definitely can make or break any given photo. Using shallow DoF and creating bokeh is maybe the most obvious way of making a clean background, but I like how you also mentioned how the background can define the location, or put the subject into context.

    Even when using a shallow DoF, I still consider the overall color of the bokeh that will be created to best compliment the subject. In these shots of a great egret (which is white), I looked for the darkest cloud background available at that time to make the egret stand out:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/3/14/great-egret-flying-in-st-petersburg-florida-bird-photography.html

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com

    January 11, 2012 03:14 am

    Hahaha! Thi is so true! Especially in my field of photograpy.

    I do Car Photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    As they say, car photography is essentially landscape photography, with the car as the subject. I stick to that and you'll see it in a lot of my photos.

  • ErikKerstenbeck

    January 11, 2012 02:34 am

    Link for the above Post:

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/the-old-and-the-new/

  • ErikKerstenbeck

    January 11, 2012 02:34 am

    Hi

    Great article! Sometimes background can be foreground and vice versa, like in the reflective shot of some old sewing machines in a window display in Chicago!

    Cheers, Erik

  • Mridula

    January 11, 2012 02:24 am

    Here is the one I like.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2011/10/havelock-andaman-islands.html

  • gnslngr45

    January 11, 2012 02:10 am

    When I look back on the photos I took before purchasing a dSLR, I find that the biggest distraction and issue with my old photos are the background. A clean background or a very shallow depth of field would have made a tremendous difference.

    flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

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