8 Beginner Tips for Images with a Better Background

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Are you taking too many photos where the background is distracting from your main subject? It’s a common mistake for beginner photographers to pay attention only to their main subject and not what’s in the background. You also need to carefully look at what’s behind your subject when you are composing your photos, and a better background is part of better overall images.

Here are 8 tips to help new photographers achieve photos with a better background.

1. Choose Plain Backgrounds

statue against the blue sky - better background

By getting down low and looking up at your subject, the sky can make a great plain background.

Look for plain backgrounds and avoid strong patterns or clutter behind your subject. A single subject against a plain background will stand out better and make a stronger image. If what’s behind your subject is visually imposing it will distract attention from your subject.

By taking your photo from a low angle the sky will make a good plain background, especially on a cloudless day or at night. Get up higher, above your subject, and a nice lawn or large paved area can work well. A long fence or the side of a building with no windows will provide you with an effective plain background as well.

2. Give your Subject Some Distance

Two people throwing water during Thai new year - better background

Having some distance between subject and background you can blur the background so it’s not distracting.

Don’t place your subjects too close to the background. If your subject is too close to the background you will have too much in focus and your subject will not stand out. By putting some distance between your subject and what’s behind it, your subject will be sharp and what’s behind can be blurred out, (if you use a wide enough aperture setting.)

But you don’t always need to completely blur the background. Sometimes it’s good to still be able to see what’s going on behind your subject by having it only somewhat out of focus. This can work particularly well with environmental portraits where you want the background recognizable, but not be imposing.

3. Crop in Tight

Chilies at the street market - better background

Cropping tight to this pile of chilies has eliminated the distracting background.

Move close or zoom into your subject to avoid seeing most or all of the background. This will mean attention is given totally to your subject because there is nothing else in the photo.

Coming in super close might mean not including the whole of your subject in the photo. This is okay. Cutting off part of your subject could be better than including the whole subject and some distracting background.

4. Create a Balance

vegetable vendors at a street market - better background

Using the person and objects in the background, a balance has been created in this composition.

When you find yourself in situations where you have no control over the background or how close it is to your subject you need to get creative in other ways to make the most of what’s there.

Looking at the objects, shapes, and lighting in the background you might find you can use part or all of these things to help balance your composition and complement your main subject.

5. Change Your Point of View

Market vendor selling cooked sausages - better background

The bright background here is unattractive and adds no meaning to the photo. It is just distracting from the subject and draws the eye away from the vendor.

Market vendor selling cooked sausages taken during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

By moving my camera position, now the background is darker and adds meaning to the photo because you can now see it’s in a street market.

Sometimes to achieve a better background you will need to move your camera position.

If you are setting up to compose a photo and are seeing distractions in the background, try moving your camera to the left or right, or get up higher or down lower. As you do, watch what happens to the background in relation to the subject. You may see that as the relationship between objects changes you create a balance in your composition.

You might be able to hide distracting objects behind your subject or something else in your frame just by moving a little. Coming in closer can also help.

6. Use a Longer Lens

Street parade girl in costume - better background

Here, using a long lens allowed me to only see the girl’s costume and nothing else in the background.

Using a longer lens and moving back from your subject (rather than using a wide lens and being close) will greatly affect what you see in the background.

A lens with a wider field of view will naturally take in more of what’s in the background. Changing lenses or zooming in can eliminate much more of the background. It will also help blur your background if that’s what you want.

7. Frame Your Subject

Young woman - better background

The out of focus entrance behind my subject frames her nicely.

Find some element of a background that can enhance your photo by framing your subject.

If you want to use a natural frame for your subject it does not need to be in front, it can be quite effective if it’s behind them as well. Be careful though, if it is too strong it may visually overpower your main subject.

8.Use Contrast

market porter Thailand - better background

Using the large indoor space as a background for this market porter standing in the street has created a good dark background.

Look for backgrounds which are brighter or darker than your subjects. With careful exposure, you will be able to isolate your subject just because of the difference in lighting. This is one of my favorite techniques to really draw attention to my subjects, especially when I am photographing people.

Whether I am working with a studio setup or making portraits on the fly, I love to work with a dark background. Be careful to make an exposure reading from a person’s face, if the background has significantly less light falling on it then it will be underexposed and darker than your subject. If the background is a dark color this will help also as it will reflect less light than your subject. This is more difficult to achieve with people who have dark complexions.

Karin hill tribe woman taken during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

Using my outdoor studio I am able to easily have a plain, dark background.

Conclusion

Next time you are out and about with your camera, remember to pay attention to what’s happening behind your subject as well. The background can make or break a picture. It can support a subject or be a total distraction. Practice using these tips to create better backgrounds and I am sure you will begin to see an improvement in your photos.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker. He began his career in newspaper photography in the late 1980s and has freelanced, covering many different genres of photography ever since. Kevin is offering DPS readers a generous discount on his popular online courses “Master Your Camera - Master Your Creativity” and "Lightroom Digital Workflow." Click Here to enroll. Learn more about the photography workshops Kevin and his wife run in Thailand.

  • Lisa S

    How did you manage the deep black background in the last photo (woman smoking)? You said “using my outdoor studio” but I’m not sure what you mean by that.

  • These are some great tips! Very useful. I especially like the vendor/street market tip.

  • Paul Willy Brown

    good stuff,
    but I really hate any kind of natural frame, seen too many I suppose

  • Kevin Lj

    For the photo of the woman smoking I used my portable natural light outdoor studio. I can set this up anywhere I have enough space. This photo was taken in a small village near Om Koi in northern Thailand. The black background is fabric. The main reason it looks so black is because there is no sunlight on it so it is significantly darker than my subject. Because I expose for my subject’s face and the tone of the background is so much darker the background is very dark. You do not need an outdoor studio to use this technique. I have used the same technique in the photo above of the porter, it just there was more light in the background of this portrait.
    You can see more of my outdoor studio photos here
    http://photoworkshopsbykevinandpansa.com/galleries/outdoor-studio-gallery/
    I am working on a video about it and will also add some behind the scenes photos to this web page soon.

  • Kevin Lj

    Thanks Barron. I am glad you enjoyed it and hope you can make use of these tips next time you are out and about with your camera.

  • Kevin Lj

    Glad you liked the article Paul. Personally I do not use frames often, but in an article like this I have to include this technique 🙂

  • PJB_NUFC

    Great tips as always, thank you Kevin.
    PS. I want to eat at that street market 🙂

  • Kevin Lj

    Come on over! It’s one of the locations we visit on one of our photography workshops.

  • Clover Granger

    Very useful, man. thanks so much

  • Cidom10

    These are very useful tips! A good way to achieve most of these is to have a good camera that is very good at focusing! Here are a few that I saw on sale: https://ebay.to/2rS42OZ

  • Smiley Snaps Photography chenn

    Hi i am Smiley snaps – wedding photographers in chennai. Once you have practiced the previous advice for a while, it is time to be selective. What I mean by this? I mean do not take pictures of everything that moves or catches your attention.

    Since the reel is not used and the number of photos is not limited to a certain amount, we have become accustomed to saving a lot of images that will never see the light only because at that moment we did not know how to contain ourselves.

  • Kevin Lj

    Thanks. I’m pleased you found it useful.

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