Beginner photographers tend to be so focused on the major element in their photos (individual portraits, groups, pets, etc.) that they often forget about the background. Part of becoming a better photographer is to recognize when the background complements the subject and when it overwhelms the subject, so it’s lost against the background. Those viewing your photos will find this confusing. They’ll be less interested in seeing what you’ve photographed and will treat you like just another beginner photographer.
Advancing beyond the beginner photography stage begins with knowledge; and your first lesson in controlling the background is to recognize the potential problems.
• The Sudden Distraction: It always happens: you’re ready to take someone’s picture at a party, and another person jumps into the frame, ruining the photo you had composed. Other examples are the quick change of the background light or an object entering the frame unexpectedly. (Think of taking someone’s portrait with a street in the background; and just as you shoot, a large truck enters the frame, with graphics and text on the side of the truck behind your portrait subject!)
• “Is That Tree Growing from the Top of Your Head?”: Beginner photographers are famous (or maybe infamous) for placing their subjects in relation to the background, so it looks as if an object is protruding from some part of their bodies—and often unflattering.
• Lost in the Lines: The classic example of this problem is a person wearing a shirt or dress with vertical wide stripes standing in front of a background with horizontal wide stripes. Too many lines make it difficult for the brain to separate the subject from the background. The general rule is to reduce the amount of lines, in any direction, as much as possible.
Your second beginner photography lesson about backgrounds is the steps you take to avoid the problems above, and use the background to your advantage.
1. Look Before You Snap.
Too many beginner photographers still take pictures too quickly and spontaneously, without any regard for the relationship of the subject to the background. If you’re one of them, then the simple solution is to pause before you snap that picture, and then take a few seconds to check the background for any of the problems listed above. Once you learn and practice the remaining steps below, you may be surprised just how much better your beginner photography looks.
2. Place Your Subject.
Simply changing the position, or placement, of your subject will often eliminate a distracting background.
3. Go Mobile.
Beginner photographers tend to forget that they can move too. Maybe all it takes for that ugly background to disappear is for you to move to your left or right or shoot from a high or low angle. Changing angles will especially help you outdoors. Shoot from above your object and you can lose most of a too-bright sky. Shoot from a low angle if you want to use that light, or to place your subject against a better background behind and above his or her head. Sometimes, it’s as simple as removing an offending object before you shoot.
4. Manipulate the Depth of Field.
As a beginner photographer, you can’t avoid learning about and using depth of field if you want to improve your photos. Depth of field is the space, or visual plane, in your photo that appears to be in focus, from a point in the foreground to a point in the background. Depth of field can be very narrow, only inches or feet, or very deep, essentially to infinity. Once you know how to manipulate the depth of field, you’ll have another tool to help you control the background.
You use depth of field to cause the background to blur, which makes the subject appear to pop from your picture. There are three ways to manipulate the depth of field in your photos.
• Set the aperture on your camera to the widest setting, which is the smallest number, such as f4. This is the setting where the background should be the blurriest. As you change the aperture, moving to larger f-stops, the background will become more recognizable.
• Depth of field is also affected by how close your subject is standing in front of the background. If he or she is standing close, then the background will probably appear in focus too, since you are focused on the subject. The greater the distance between your subject and the background, the more likely it will be beyond the depth of focus, and begin to blur.
• The focal length of the lens also allows you to manipulate depth of field, although not as much as the other two methods. The longer the focal length, the more of your subject will fill the frame, covering much of the background and making it a much less distracting element in your picture.
5. Enlarge Your Subject.
When the background doesn’t work, even after re-positioning your subject and you, then simply move in close, so your subject fills most of the frame.
8. Bring a Background.
Another solution is to create backgrounds and make them part of your photography equipment. You can buy studio backgrounds, but it’s less expensive and just as effective to use some large color cards or a bed sheet. Blur the background using the depth-of-field methods above and no one will know the background is artificial.
9. Edit the Background.
Another part of your beginner photography education is photo-editing software. There are many of them that are low cost and easy to learn. The wonder of technology will allow you to change or remove the background or unflattering elements during post-production.