The background in your image can quickly reveal your skill level as a photographer. Learning to see past an exotic or exciting subject, to catch the details in the background, is what will distinguish you from a beginning, hobbyist photographer to an experienced professional. The background in your image immediately stands out to a trained eye. Learning just this skill can very quickly elevate and improve your photography.
Most times, the difference between a snapshot and a strong, compelling image can be as simple as one small step, slightly changing your perspective, or blurring out a background. If the photograph is about an exciting subject, then try to eliminate the background, making it about your subject. If you wish to photograph your subject in their environment check to make sure that: the background is equally as impressive as your subject, is part of the story, and adds value to the image.
Keep it simple for a more powerful image
Here are several examples of how one simple movement or adjustment can change an unusable image into a very powerful one. In the portrait below, the light had become too harsh to make a usable image. I moved my subject into a hut, but then the light coming through the wood created a horrible background.
I looked around, picked up one of the skins lying on the floor, and put it up behind the subject. This removed the distractions by making the background solid and created a powerful portrait.
The image below on the left is beautiful, but once you look at the subject your eyes wonder up to the sky and out of the photograph. The sky is not part of the story. My subject is the story, therefore the sky is a distraction. I got a little higher and zoomed in a little closer, filling the frame with my subject, eliminating the distraction of the sky. Here the viewers eyes are drawn directly to the subject and stay there.
Where is the horizon?
If you are going to have sky in your image, you want to make sure the horizon does not cut through the head of your subject, like the image above. To adjust and create the image below, I dropped down about a foot lower and zoomed in slightly so the horizon line is below the subjects head, creating a stronger image.
Below is another example of keeping your subjects head above the horizon. This was a difficult shot. If my eyes had not been trained to quickly hone in on the background, the horizon could easily have cut right though his head, or been on a slant. This would have ruined the power of this image. It is these small details that make the difference in a great shot or a snapshot.
Create separation between subject and background
In the image above I was careful not to clip the toes and have the subject’s shadow in the frame, but the background around his head was distracting. I simply took a step to the left and the v-shape of the tree-line now leads the viewer directly to my subject. The man’s face is now in plain view without any distractions (image below).
Watch for bright spots
In this image I wanted to show the subjects connection with nature, but I was challenged by not being able to create a composition without the distraction of the bright sky coming through.
The solution was to slightly change my angle and shoot it as a vertical (see below)
Blur it out
The background in the image above is not bad, but since the subject is the bird it is distracting. The best way to handle this type situation is to blur the background by opening up to f/2.8 and zooming in on your subject, filling the frame. This is a much stronger image (below)
Color can be a distraction
When you are filling the frame with your subject always check for distracting elements in your background. In this first image (above) there is a brown line going directly across the background. Your eyes look directly at the cheetah, but then immediately pick up the break of color, distracting you as the viewer. The next two images have solid backgrounds. Your eyes go directly to the subject and stay there.
Great subject alone is not enough for a wow image
The image below looks more like a photograph that was taken because it was the first time the photographer saw a lion or because the photographer did not have a long enough lens. Sometimes a situation is what I call eye candy; just for looking at, and not for taking a photograph. Just because your subject is exotic it does not mean it will make it a great photograph.
If the background does not add to the photograph or story, then remove it. Get up close and make the photograph about the subject.
Put it into practice
The easiest way to train your eye is to practice. Get out and shoot, but before you head out, take a quick look through a few of your existing galleries. Were you seeing what was in the background, when you clicked the shutter?
Challenge your self by going to a busy downtown tourist area and try to isolate your subjects or visit the zoo where the backgrounds can be difficult. Download the images and view them on your monitor. Looking at them in the back of your camera is a good tool for a quick peek. But it is when are no longer in the emotion of the moment, viewing the images on your monitor, that unwanted elements will scream out at you. The more you see these mistakes on your computer, the more you will remember them behind the camera. Repeat this exercise often until what you see on the monitor is what you were seeing in the frame when you click the shutter.
Practice putting your subjects in simple clean environments first, as the sample images below.
Soon you will be able to introduce a secondary subject in the background for a more complicated image. This draws the viewer to the main subject and then through the image to the discover what else is going on in the images, holding their attention in your image a lot longer.
Good Luck and enjoy the process