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Power To The Background

The background can be just as important as the foreground.
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Power to the background
Benvie decided to use the false sharpness set up by placing an out-of-focus edge against a specular highlight and shot the bog arum at ƒ/4 to record the highlight of the sun as a large disc. Fill-lighting was provided by a white reflector.

For the past 20 years or more, there has been a trend among wildlife photographers, myself included, to minimize the contribution of the background in their photographs by rendering it as low key as possible. By doing so, the subject can be freed from visual competition and stand out clearly.

This approach can greatly underestimate the contribution that the background can make to the look and mood of an image. Rather than acting merely as a passive neutral surface, the background can be used to create depth, to set up tension and, under certain conditions, to give sharp edges to out-of-focus subjects. Moreover, by reversing normal expectations of an illuminated subject and shaded background, the viewer can be challenged to look at the subject, literally, in a fresh light.

How It Works

Within the two-dimensional space of an image, a sense of depth is created, not only by constructing perspective, but also by juxtaposing warm (advancing) and cool (receding) colors. The effect is heightened when the subject in the foreground is conspicuously shaded while the background is lit.

When I photograph wildlife, I’m always on the lookout for these bright backgrounds, but in reality, there are many more opportunities to use this technique in the macro zone. A telephoto (I use a minimum of 200mm) gives maximum control of the background. At any given aperture and magnification, depth of field is the same whether you use a 50mm or a 500mm lens, but the background looks radically different as the 500mm greatly magnifies out-of-focus, distant elements and makes them appear closer to the subject. The longer the lens, the more diffused the background. In practical terms, a 180mm or 200mm macro lens or 300mm on an extension tube are the most versatile and easiest-to-handle tools for the job.

After I find a suitable subject—one shaded under an open sky with a clear view through to an illuminated background—I decide how much background color to include and adjust the composition accordingly. In these lighting conditions, you can expect a strong blue cast, one I normally restrain with an 81B warming filter.

 Power To The Background

Common horsetails are among the most ancient plants on Earth, and Niall Benvie wanted a hint of “in the beginning” in this shot. The rising sun tracks across the sky quickly, calling for a camera reposition every minute or so. A telephoto macro lens rendered the sun as a disc the width of the frame. Middle: A pool in shade caught light from a reflected rock face in Zion National Park. Forget the “correct” white balance in a shot like this; think instead of the contrast between warm and cool. Right: The blue of this wild cornflower growing near a barley field in Estonia was even richer in shade. Benvie used the complementary yellow of the barley to enhance the depth suggested by differential focus, and chose an angle placing the flower against the barley.



 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 ( To see more of Benvie’s work, visit