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Monday, October 1, 2007

Power To The Background

The background can be just as important as the foreground.

 Power To The Background
Laden with reflective hoar frost, Benvie had only minutes to photograph this willow catkin before the sun, already melting frost in the warm-toned background, robbed the subject of its coolness.
The contrast between the subject and background is crucial in technical and aesthetic terms. If your subject is mid-toned and you want to render it so, the background shouldn’t be more than two stops brighter—the latitude of slide film. Anything brighter, and the background will burn out.

This type of picture often looks better underexposed by about one stop, hinting as it does of a shaded subject. If contrast remains excessive, use a white reflector (silver or gold can be too harsh) to redirect some light onto the subject, taking care not to overlight it.

Use your camera’s depth-of-field preview to determine how sharp the background will be. Generally, I use a much wider aperture than I would if framing a close-up for maximum detail.

It’s sometimes wise to back off and sacrifice some magnification for the sake of more depth of field. Keep a low angle to reduce interference from unwanted vegetation just behind the subject.

Shooting this type of picture into the light presents other challenges. Firstly, the contrast will be considerably greater as you’re looking toward the sun. It’s also harder to set up a good contrast between warm and cool tones. What you can exploit, however, is the sun’s own brilliance.

 Power To The Background
Shortly after dawn on a cold June morning in Estonia, Benvie shot this broad-leaved cotton grass in the shade where it picked up the hue of the clear blue sky, setting it against the meadow already in sun

A setting or rising sun may itself feature in the background (a 200mm macro provides an ideal amount of magnification for this), but you’ll need to make your compositions and exposures quickly, as it’s astonishing how quickly the subject moves relative to the sun, especially early and late in the day.

An altogether trickier approach exploits the way a brilliant directional light source creates a false sharpness around the edge of a defocused subject placed against it. In addition to the sun itself, sparkling water offers an alternative, and safer, indirect light source, as does a silver or gold reflector angled to catch the sun. You’ll normally need to shoot at quite wide apertures so that the highlights remain large, unless you want to create a pattern of hexagons.

Think in three-dimensional color, as well as space, and you’ll transform restrained, somber pictures into moody, colorful images.

Niall Benvie
is a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (www.ilcp.com). To see more of Benvie's work, visit www.imagesfromtheedge.com.


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