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5 Tips to Improve Your Background and Make the Subject Stand Out More

If you are looking for a quick, simple, hassle-free way to make your images pop more and stand out, this is the article for you!

You don’t have to be a Photoshop genius – in fact, this may help you spend less time in Photoshop. These simple tips can elevate the photos you take. If there was one element in many images I see that could greatly improve it, it would have to be this: backgrounds. An ugly or distracting background can easily reduce the impact of even the best subjects. A clean, un-distracting background will help improve your images and make your subjects stand out even more. The best past is, you wont even have to spend a cent to do this.

Even though the background here works quite well with the subjects, using a wider aperture has ensured that the subjects do not get lost, but stand out. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Even though the background here works quite well with the subjects, using a wider aperture has ensured that the subjects do not get lost, but stand out. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

All too often we overlook the background and what is in it. You swear that those power lines weren’t in the viewfinder when you took that picture, and that post, where did that post come from?! That surely wasn’t protruding from your partner’s head when you clicked the shutter button. This occurs for a number of reasons:

  • You’re too focussed on the subject alone that it’s almost like you have blinders on and the subject is all you can see.
  • You may get too obsessed with the camera settings and making sure you nail the photo that you miss all those little annoying things that pop in to the frame.
  • Or you are simply unaware of the importance that a good background can make.

So how can you improve your backgrounds, or at the very least, reduce the negative impact they can have on your images? By following these simple strategies, you’ll be well on your way to a better background and improving your images.

#1 – Location, Location, Location

If you have the option, do try and choose a location that has a nice background – that will make it as easy as it can get. What defines a nice background will depend on your subject, but as a very general guide, look for a spot that has a uniform look to it. Brick walls, corrugated iron roller doors, metal cladding on walls, or even something as simple as a painted white wall, can all make for a nice clean background. Ultimately, what you are not looking for is something that has a lot of other elements in the frame, that do not add to your subject.

If you cannot find a location that has a clean background, looking for somewhere where the background complements – or works with – your subject will also work, too. An example of this would be with sport photography. You simply cannot decide where the game will be played, so you have to work with what you have. In this situation, think about what would look good as a background. Would a stand full of supporters look better than a car park full of cars or a building site? I think it would. The stand full of supports, while not clean, works with your subjects and in fact, has more impact as the supporters add a nice element of atmosphere to the image.

Cluttered BG 1

Even though this image has the stadium in the background, it is a little cluttered. The seats are mostly empty, so it’s not really portraying any sense of atmosphere in the sport.

Clean BG 5

By changing my position, I was able to use a the large black cloth in the background to make the athlete stand out much more. Nothing more than moving was required; much easier.

Here, the backgrounds in these two images are quite plain. They help make the subjects the heroes of the images, as there is nothing else to compete with them.

With this image, the stands in the background have much more people in them. This works nicely to complement the subjects which, in this case, are the players. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

While this is a nice action frame, the background is not that fantastic. It’s in between areas of the different stands at this venue. It would look much better if it were against the full stadium, as in the previous image. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

You’ve found your location, but a clean background just cannot be had. What do you do?

#2 – It’s All About Perspective

A good backgrounds can be anywhere, and it can change quite a lot depending on the angle at which you photograph your subject. You may be in a very busy space, but within that space will exist areas of calm and peace. By this I mean that your backgrounds can be clean; even when it just looks cluttered in all directions.

When this happens, consider photographing from a different perspective. Photographing your subject from down low will make the sky your background. Conversely, if you’re looking down on your subject, whatever is below them will be the background. So if you cannot find an ideal background, don’t forget to look up and down – that’s where the best one may be hiding.

Relevant BG 1

This rower was photographed from a bridge, making the water the background. in this case, the background works quite well with the subject.

Clean BG 7

This time, I was photographing this plane landing. This meant that I would be looking up, and the sky became the background here. The complementary colour set of the blue sky and yellow light on the plane also help to make the subject stand out more.

You may have the best background sorted. But it’s not always possible to be lucky enough to have that perfect background all the time. So what else can you do to help your subject?

#3 – Camera Craft

There will be times – more often than not – where you simply cannot win with your background. No matter which way you stand, you just can’t seem to find a nice clean backdrop. What now? Here’s where a little camera craft comes in to play and you have a couple of tricks up your sleeve with this.

First point of call is aperture. You know that you can simply open your aperture up a little more, and give that background some nice bokeh (or blur) to reduce its impact. Even when you do have a nice complementary background, it’s still a good idea to use a wider aperture to blur it out a bit and make your subject stand out against it more.

What if you can’t open your aperture any further, though? There’s still hope. Our next strategy is to play with shutter speed and use a panning technique. This can help greatly in rendering a busy background into a nice blurry mess. It also helps to add a great sense of movement and action, as well as give a sense of excitement to an image. If you’re unsure about how to do panning, have a read of this article – it will help greatly. But in a nutshell, panning is the technique of using a slower shutter speed (usually around 1/60th or slower) while tracking a moving subject. The combination of a slow shutter speed, coupled with the panning action, will result in a nice motion blur affecting the background, and if done correctly, the subject will remain sharp.

Cluttered BG 2

This background is clean; there are no real distractions in it, but it could be improved upon.

Clean BG 6

Here’s a different frame but this time, a panning technique has been used to remove all the creases in the blue backdrop. This has made the background cleaner again, and the added motion blur gives a sense of speed which works well with the subject.

Clean BG 8

The use of a wide aperture here has dramatically blurred out the background making it much cleaner. The result is that the subject stands out much more. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

#4 – Can You See the Light?

Something that seems to always be overlooked in photography is light. This seems to me like quite a remarkable thing since without light, we don’t have much of a photo. But using light, and the contrast it can provide, is another way to reduce the appearance of a distracting background. With this strategy you need to look for a higher amount of contrast between your subject and the background; that is, you’re subject is (ideally) brighter than the background. By exposing for your subject (the brightest area) you effectively make shadowed areas in the frame darker, thereby affecting your background. This can be achieved with both natural light and flash.


In this image, the flower was in the daylight; whereas the background was in the shade. I exposed for the flower and this made the background darker.

Again, the background here is much darker than the subject; helping to isolate the subject more. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Again, the background here is much darker than the subject; helping to isolate the subject more. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Clean BG 2 Clean BG 1

These photographs were taken in an undercover car park. I used two flashes (both off-camera) as my only light source. This removed any ambient light affecting the image.

#5 – The Final Stop

You’ve done what you can with the background. You’ve tried everything, but your background still doesn’t want to play ball. There will be times when you simply cannot control any of the aspects that have been mentioned. Don’t worry – it isn’t uncommon. Now all you can do is hope that there is something that can be done later, and there is!

If you’ve done everything you can to help improve your background and you’re still not winning, the last port of call is post-processing. You may be thinking, “Hold on, I’m not that great with selecting and masking in Photoshop yet.” but you needn’t worry. There is no selecting or masking with this one. (As a side note, if you intend on making a selection around your subject and replacing the background, you will need to photograph your subject accordingly to make this much easier and more natural).

All you need do is crop your image. That’s it. Cropping is about all you can do now. By cropping, you are effectively removing as much of the background as possible without cropping into your subject. Don’t worry about how much you are cropping out – unless of course you intend on doing a large print. You’d be surprised at how much many photographers are willing to crop.

Do you have any other tips for making the subject stand out, or improving the background? Please share your thoughts and images in the comments below.

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is originally from Melbourne, Australia, but now resides in the UK. He specializes in sport and editorial photography and is a photographer with the worlds leading digital content suppliers. You can see more of his work by following him on Instagram.

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