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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 Ways Backgrounds Make or Break Photos

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
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

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