Choosing the perfect photography background is as important as choosing your subject. A background is usually best if it helps enhance your main subject and complements it.
First, you need to consider your subject and your intent for taking photos of it. Then, consider how your subject works with the background. Are your subject and background conflicting? If they are, you must then use some method of controlling the background.
Some subjects will look great in a photograph against their natural backdrop. A pink flower against foliage, for example. Others you’ll have to work with to make them stand out or to better relate to their surroundings. This depends on your intent.
What’s your intent for the subject?
Do you want your main subject to be the focus of the viewer’s attention? If so, you must manage your technique in making the photograph so that your subject is most obvious.
Isolating your subject can be achieved in many ways. Some of the main ways to accomplish this are:
- Place it against a plain background
- Make sure there’s enough tonal or color contrast between your subject and the background
- Use a shallow depth of field to blur your background
In this example, the coffee cups are on a plain black background. Lack of detail and high contrast ensures the main subject stands out.
Alternatively, you may decide to incorporate your background into the meaning of your photographs. Placing your main subject in context with its surroundings can often add depth of meaning.
A typical example of this is an environmental portrait. This style of photography uses the background and surroundings to add narrative to the image.
In this portrait of a copper craftsman working on his art, the environment helps build a story. His father looking on, the tools and other items on the shelves behind, are all an essential part of the portrait.
My intent was to tell a story illustrating his occupation. If I’d photographed him against a plain background, the photograph would contain very little narrative.
How point of view determines background
Naturally, where you choose to stand will determine what is behind your main subject.
When you find an interesting subject, don’t only photograph it from one perspective. Move around it. See how it looks if you stand on the other side. The background may be completely different.
Even a slight change in your position can alter what will be visible in the background. Move to your left or right. Shift your view up or down a little. How does this change the relationship between your subject and background?
Coming at a low angle to make this landscape, I’ve included the ice boulders, mountains, and glacier in the background. The composition gives context to the ice in the foreground. If I had stood in the same place, looking down at the ice boulders, there would have only been rocks in the background.
Moving closer or further away from your subject also determines what’s in view behind your subject. Changing your lens focal length does too but in different ways. Moving closer with a wide-angle lens has a very different result than standing in the same spot and zooming in.
Always experiment to see what will be included and excluded.
How contrast determines background
If your main subject is darker or lighter than the background, this can determine the significance of the composition.
A dark subject against a light background looks very different than a lighter subject against a dark background. Generally, a dark background helps isolate a subject. It can also allow for more detail to be visible in the subject.
Choice of exposure can affect this, as in the photos above of the tree. Both were taken a few minutes apart. All I did was to expose for the tree in the first image and let the sky become overexposed.
In the second photo, I exposed for the sky to show the detail in the clouds. In both images, the tree is isolated, but the feel of the photos is very different.
Controlling depth of field to determine background
Depth of field control is a good way to manage your background. Choosing how much or how little is in focus allows you to manage your intention.
By completely blurring a background, you effectively isolate your subject. Partially blurring the background leaves some idea of what’s in the background. But it doesn’t have to be distracting.
In this close up of the detail on an old bicycle, I waited until the person on the other bike rode past. My settings were such that it’s obvious it’s a bike in the background.
If I’d chosen to take the photo with a shallower depth of field, the passing bike might have blurred completely. Then it would not have added anything to the photo. If I’d had everything in sharp focus, the passing bike would have been distracting.
Learn to control how much or how little of your composition is in focus. This is an essential tool in determining your background.
Making intentional choices about the background is essential to making strong photographs. I am often surprised when I’m teaching photography workshops how little attention people pay to the background.
It’s easy to become transfixed on a wonderful subject. Focusing on other aspects of photography like exposure, you must remember to look at the background as well.
Be intentional. Include only what you want to see. Limit or exaggerate the amount of background detail depending on what you want. The amount of control you have over the background will determine the strength of your photographs.
Do you have any other tips for choosing the perfect photography background? Share with us in the comments!