9 Tips for Getting Backgrounds Right - Digital Photography School

9 Tips for Getting Backgrounds Right

Photo by igglybwiggs

Photo by igglybwiggs

Backgrounds present both opportunities and challenges to photographers. On the one hand they can put a subjects in context and make it stand out in a way that highlights it wonderfully – but on the other hand backgrounds can overwhelm subjects and distract from them.

Some of the common problems that photographers have with backgrounds include:

  • Distracting Focal Points – we’ve all seen this happen – we line up a shot of a friend to take as a portrait and just as we press the shutter someone else pops their head up over their shoulder with a silly face. The result is that the real focal point of the shot becomes the face pulling person. This is an extreme example of distracting focal points in the background but it’s something that happens quite a lot.
  • Protruding Elements from Subjects Heads – I nearly didn’t include this one but it’s so common that I just had to mention it. When shooting a portrait one of the common mistakes is for some background element to look like it’s sticking up out of a person’s head – like a horn. It’s often trees (as in the photo to the left) but could be anything. These shots can be quite comical but can also really throw the composition of a shot off.
  • Competing Lines – if your subject has lines in it and your background also has strong lines they can compete in such a way that the image becomes busy or so that the lines clash with one another.

9 Strategies for Dealing with Distracting Backgrounds

1. Check your Background Before Hitting the Shutter Release

Ok – this strategy isn’t rocket science, in fact you’d think it almost goes without saying – but unfortunately it doesn’t and many of the mistakes that I see in photographs could have been avoided simply by checking the background before taking the shot and taking some sort of evasive action.

Always scan the background of your shots before taking a shot. Look for colors that don’t fit with the rest of the image, bright patches that might distract the eye, lines that clash, people that don’t belong etc.

2. Move Your Subject

This is once again a fairly simple technique but is probably the first thing you should consider. Quite often asking a portrait subject to take a step to the left or right will fix things either by putting the distraction behind them or by putting it out of frame.

Photo by alterednate

Photo by alterednate

3. Change your Shooting Angle

If you have distracting elements in the background of a shot but can’t move your subject another strategy is to move yourself and shoot from a new angle. This might mean rotating around your subject but could also include getting down low to make the sky the background or even getting up high and shooting down onto your subject to make the background the ground.

4. Using Aperture to Blur Backgrounds

One of the most useful things to learn as a way to combat distractions in backgrounds (and foregrounds) is to use the power of your lens to throw the background out of focus using depth of field. What you’re trying to achieve with this technique is a nice blurred background where you can’t really make out what’s going on there.

The easiest way to do this is to use a wide aperture (the smaller the number the wider the aperture). The wider your aperture the more blurry your background should become.

The quickest way to see the impact of this strategy is to switch your camera into aperture priority mode and to take a number of shots at different apertures. Start with an aperture of f/20 and work your way down – one stop at a time. Once you get down to under f/4 you’ll start seeing the background in your shots getting blurrier and blurrier.

5. Using Focal Length to Blur Backgrounds

Another way to help get your backgrounds nice and blurry is to use a lens with a long focal length. Longer tele-photo do help a little to get narrower depth of field (although the amount is less than many think). In actual fact the impact is smaller than it seems and the main reason for the change is that with a longer focal length the subject actually takes up more space in the frame. Lots of arguments have been had over whether focal length impacts this – you can read more about it here and here – I’ll leave it to the experts to discuss the finer points but will say that using longer focal lengths does seem to have some impact and is worth experimenting with.

6. Place Subjects In front of Open Spaces

Placing your subject a long way in front of other objects will also help to make those objects more blurry. For example if you have the choice between shooting your subject standing right in front of a brick wall or standing in front of an open field – the open field shot will have a much more blurred background simply because the brick wall is just centimeters from your subject and inside the focal range whereas an open field stretches off into the distance where everything will be out of focus.

7. Fill your frame with your subject

One of the most effective ways of removing distractions from backgrounds is to remove the background altogether by totally filling the frame with your subject. Get up close and/or use your zoom lens to tightly frame the shot and you’ll not only remove distractions but could end up with a high impact shot as well.

Background

Photo by Keith Morris

8. Make your Own Background

Sometimes there just isn’t any suitable background and so you might want to consider making your own. This could range from buying a purpose built studio background or simply buying some cloth to do the job for you.

I know of one keep photographer who goes out shooting photographic portraits and carries large colored sheets of card with him to put up on walls to act as a background.

The other thing to keep in mind is that in many instances you can move things around in the background of your shots (especially if you’re shooting indoors). For example I was recently photographed in my home for a newspaper and the photographer had me move a number of pieces of furniture during the shoot because they were distracting in the shots. It took a little effort but the impact in the shots was quite incredible.

9. Post Processing

I’m no expert in using photo editing software but there are numerous ways of editing a shot after you’ve taken it to get rid of distracting elements. These can include blurring techniques, actual removing of elements and replacing them and techniques such as selective coloring (ie making your subject stand out by making your background black and white (or at least sucking some of the color out of it).

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://Blogs.Albawaba.com/julianne09 Enid

    I think the admin of this web site is actually working hard
    for his web page, for the reason that here every material is quality based stuff.

  • marius2die4

    A good article. Congratulations!

  • Chris

    @Mark Berg

  • Chris Stagner

    IF YOUR IN MRS RYANS DIGITAL LITERACY CLASS SAY HALLAA

  • http://www.luclodder.net luclodder

    Number 2 is a very “strange” way.
    When I shoot portraits, i don’t ask my subject to move to hide a trashcan or something else behind them. I do move!

    The way i shoot is mostly with bend knees, and i can move left or right to change or hide the background.

    So try not to ask the subject, just move yourself.

  • mnstrausbauch

    I like to break the rules once in a while. NGeo was filming a TV special in my lab I had cleaned up just for the event. The cinematographer demanded I fill up the background with junk … years later I am still cleaning that mess up. I remembered that with my point and shoot (I am begining the hobby again). http://www.flickr.com/photos/michael_strausbauch/8034553337/

Some older comments

  • Enid

    May 6, 2013 03:26 am

    I think the admin of this web site is actually working hard
    for his web page, for the reason that here every material is quality based stuff.

  • Lisa

    May 13, 2012 12:42 pm

    In your opinion what's the best Canon lense for bg blur/portrait photography?

  • Wedding Photographer Perth

    April 9, 2012 03:00 pm

    Hi Mark, I'd have to say that the best Nikon lenses for blurring backgrounds is any lens with a wide aperture higher than f2.8. In my experience Nikon's 85mm f1.4 is the best and gives a fantastic Bokeh (background blur). A photo is three dimensional so a great photo has depth :)

  • Stacy Thomas

    February 21, 2012 11:11 am

    I'm a photography student and I love learning all the information. Particularly helpful since
    my next class assignment is on portraiture.

  • Mark Berg

    November 17, 2011 01:51 pm

    What are the best Nikon lenses for wedding photography?

  • Parnita

    November 10, 2011 09:55 pm

    Great information loaded here.Thxs. I also wanted to know how to get the background totally dark and focussing only on the clarity of the subject even in the daytime?

  • fazlullah

    November 5, 2011 09:47 pm

    hey guys i dont know much about photographi but i just want to know how to capture a moving object and have a clear photo and how to get close up pic with clear background
    i have a 5d mark 2 thank you

  • Carl Caruana

    January 25, 2011 08:20 am

    Thanks! really helped! :)

  • Don Clancy

    January 3, 2011 02:35 am

    The background is what makes the photo. Gives context without destroying the subject can be tricky.
    good tips.

  • frank burns

    November 13, 2010 04:51 am

    The guy with the tree in the head is utterly marvelous. Like Camus, or the writer of Waiting for Godot. Kudos on the shot.

  • Lisa

    September 6, 2010 07:39 am

    I didn't see this mentioned so I thought I'd throw it in. The further your subject is away from the background, the easier it is to separate the two with depth of field. So instead of standing a person directly in front of a building say...a foot in front of a window....move them away say...three to five feet. It can make a huge difference in the amount of blur you are able to acheive. This took me a long time to learn and I wish someone would have told me!

  • Joanne Marcus

    September 4, 2010 12:33 am

    This is so great, it helped me out alot! I am a camera nerd (:

  • Dave Lapham Photography

    August 9, 2010 08:29 am

    Love the water droplet shot. Love it!

  • Carsuna

    May 12, 2010 06:32 am

    Awesome tips. Just got the 7D; these tips will give me good results for sure. Thanks mr. tipster guy (Darren Rowse)

  • garfrico

    May 7, 2010 05:37 pm

    since the topic is on "backgrounds", i would as well like to share the importance of considering color contrasts between your subject and its background. as from experience, taking shots of subjects, like flowers (which usually have bright colored petals or parts) should be taken on dark hued backgrounds to give it a more effective appeal. especially, if blurring the background would have to be done. light or bright colored subjects shot against bright backgrounds could hardly give off a great effect.

  • Jenny

    March 18, 2010 09:38 pm

    I always have problems with background especially with my dolls. It makes me sad. Plus I'm still learning about my camera (via this site) so... it's hard. But I'm getting better.

  • Melanie

    January 24, 2010 01:54 pm

    GREAT info- thank you for sharing! I am about to shoot my 1st wedding and your site has helped me prepare a lot. :)

  • Ramanathan

    January 19, 2010 02:17 pm

    Great tips explained so clearly that one feels like getting out now & test them out.

  • bill watts

    January 10, 2010 04:20 pm

    its bill again I like the rain drop pixs but I have tried to get pix of a parasal in the raindrop (remember my spelling) I can't seem to pull it off but it should look good (maybe) I wood give you phone # but I don't know where this is going!! But please drop me a line. U could say thats a stuped idear or that rocks bill watts 2360 oakcest dr tupelo ms. 38804-01 thanks

  • Manny Rios

    January 7, 2010 09:57 am

    I ve been searching and reading about wedding photography tips for weeks, since I have to shoot my first wedding shortly, I have to say that i ve had learn more by reading here than anywhere else, in one day!, I am so glad i found this post.
    Thank you so much, i will bookmark and share this useful page with others.
    keep up the goodwill.

  • Fashion Photographer Jerry Avenaim

    December 23, 2009 02:33 am

    I like keeping it organic when I can. Longer lens, open apertures and motion blur are all great ways to focus your attention on the subject!

  • cigarro electronico

    December 19, 2009 05:17 am

    I'm a noob at photography but this article is really well written and I think your right on the information you are giving.

  • Rob

    December 2, 2009 09:38 am

    I'd love to know how alterednate shot the image that's posted next to point #3! Very nice.

  • camir

    November 28, 2009 11:53 am

    your'e right.
    your tips will help me a lot
    because i am a
    student photojournalist. thanks! :)

  • S. V. Campbell

    September 27, 2009 01:03 pm

    Thank you! Clear, to the point and very useful!

  • Francis Jason

    September 24, 2009 05:47 am

    I'm really glad that I have read this. Now, I am more excited to buy my first ever SLR camera. I will consider this site as my guide. Thanks!

  • PShani

    September 5, 2009 01:01 pm

    Thanks for your tips.I have just begun shooting with a Canonsx10i .I use the valuable hints and guidelines you have suggested.I am amazed at the results.Thank you.

  • Drew of http://desktopinspirations.blogspot.com

    August 26, 2009 04:26 pm

    I'm not a professional photographer but I am very interested in photography and this post taught me a lot. Thank you for sharing! Because of that I would like to present your site an award it deserves without a doubt.

  • robb

    August 21, 2009 01:59 am

    i believe it takes a lot of shooting and experimenting to get your bg right.
    i used to have problems with bg too in my early days of shooting.

  • Yaeko Boudoir

    August 18, 2009 11:24 am

    Hi Darren, thanks again for the next good article. I love the website. Always great stuff to read...I definitely think NR.7 is the best tip: In my Eye's it is absolutely important to focus on the subject...Thanks for sharing and I hope to read more from you.
    Thanks Natascha

  • Kiryowa Ronald

    August 3, 2009 07:44 am

    There are some moments that need to be captured very fast without missing a second. In such an event, use Photo-shop to cut out or blur the backgrounds a little! Otherwise you added value to my Photography wen i read the 9Tips- God Bless You.

  • Landscape Photography

    July 18, 2009 11:48 am

    Glad you did mention trees and random objects poking out of peoples heads, when I first started photographing people it was something I only noticed one I got the images on the computer screen, definitely something to be conscious of as it really does ruin photos or create lots of unnecessary post processing.

  • Barry

    June 19, 2009 04:52 pm

    I need to try working with the blurred background, I am often photographing my son in the house but with all his toys and furniture in the background I often get a great image of him spoiled by the TV remotes in the digger sitting on the couch. Thanks for the great post.

  • Karthik

    June 12, 2009 06:59 am

    Another excellent article here. I am experimenting a lot these days to get that blurred background look in portraits and a mix of aperture priority mode & using telephoto seem to work. I am yet to find that sweet spot in my Canon SX10.

  • Larry

    June 11, 2009 09:57 pm

    This was a great article for a beginner like me. I just point at what I want and have never thought to check the background. I will from now on. Thanks

  • John

    June 2, 2009 01:20 pm

    Good stuff. I am a novice but can easily understand the basics. Thanks.

  • CharlieJ

    May 29, 2009 12:29 am

    I regularly use depth of field, via aperture priority, when photographing flowers. Most of those images are given to coworkers to use as wallpaper or backgrounds on their computers. Overall, these are very good tips! THANKS for the article.
    Char1ieJ
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/char1iej/

  • Rebecca

    May 12, 2009 10:17 am

    EXACTLY what I needed. I needed it to be simple and easy to understand. My photography has progressed leaps and bounds today- thank you so much!!

  • Akshat Gait

    April 28, 2009 05:31 am

    Simple yet very effective.

  • Paul Long

    April 19, 2009 01:41 am

    I learned the hard way (wedding photos for a friend) that one should avoid flash photography with the subject directly in front of a wall. The flash creates a hard shadow. At least move the subject away from the wall a few feet so that the shadow is blurred, lighter, and therefore less distracting.

  • peter k

    April 16, 2009 04:25 pm

    Hi Eric ! Thanks a lot for the explanation. As a photographer it satisfies me completely. In fact you're right, phisics is less important, what realy matters is the visual effect.

  • Eric Mesa

    April 16, 2009 12:32 am

    @peter k I have a book by a very well respected photographer and I think the way he explains it is the best way to think of it. A longer focal length gives a shallower APPARENT depth of focus. In other words because of the compression effects, it magnifies the portions that are out of focus, thus creating the illusion of a shallower depth of focus. And, in the end, that's just as good as it actually giving a shallower depth of focus, whether or not that is true physics-wise.

  • peter k

    April 16, 2009 12:27 am

    There are a lot of photographers who think that the focal lenth of a lens has an influence on the DOF. As a matter of fact it changes only the perspective, not the DOF. And if you want it explained by a real, great expert go to Mr. Michael Reichman's www.luminous-landscape.com.

  • AW Ullieck

    April 13, 2009 12:58 am

    Great tips! I often found white background while having the sky as background. Any tips?

  • Zoe Peterson

    April 12, 2009 01:08 am

    Very helpful article!

  • digital photography

    April 6, 2009 02:01 am

    great tips for getting right background... during my work I had experience when shooting a portrait or a car, some trees sticking out of the head... I learned to avoid them as my photography skills and eye progressed. It makes instant difference choosing a right background even makes photos look more professional :)

  • Eric Mesa

    March 28, 2009 04:14 am

    I'd try to stay away from #9 too aggressively. My mom recently asked if I could photoshop a person out of a shot. I asked her what I'd replace it with? You can get rid of small things but not whole walls that you didn't take into consideration. Instead do your best at using techniques 1-8 to get the best results to start with.

  • Nick

    March 28, 2009 03:46 am

    The background makes the image stand out properly. I often use photo editing to clear out unwanted objects from my background. I often use blur to create an impressive Depth of Field.

  • zulfadhli

    December 5, 2008 08:30 am

    Yup, the most effective way is to check your background before you shoot. Make sure your background is nice but if you cant, you can always blur the background by using aperture and focal length. Or you might one to post processing if you like.. Nice article..

    http://www.photomakers.net

  • Robin Ryan

    December 1, 2008 03:54 am

    and sometimes the background makes the photo :)

    http://flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2534967039/

  • Megapixelicious

    December 1, 2008 12:26 am

    point 4 and 5 are related, and you have to also take into account distance from camera to subject and subject to background (which are the biggest drivers).

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