Everyone should perform their own background check. This is especially true when it comes to photography. Always perform a photography background check before you press the shutter for every image you create. The more often you do, the more frequently you’ll create photos without distractions, brights hot spots, awkward mergers or other aspects that confuse the viewer as to what the subject is. It’s essential to learn how to control background interference in a photograph to make a more successful image. As meticulous as one can be in finding a perfect subject in good light, if the background isn’t treated with equal respect, the end result falls short.
What constitutes a poor background? The cliched example of a tree or telephone pole growing out of someone’s head immediately comes to mind. As obvious as it becomes when you look at the photo, it isn’t always obvious when you click the shutter. Photographers often have tunnel vision and see ONLY the primary subject. As a result, they become blind to the surrounding elements. The interfering elements aren’t as obvious as the subject. Other culprits are bright highlights, dark blobs, tone or color mergers, elements that compete for attention, etc.
There are a number of strategies and photographic techniques one should learn in order to keep a background simple. The easiest is to study the entire viewfinder before you press the shutter. This goes back to one of my tag lines: Edit Before Pressing The Shutter. Wait for everything to fall into place. As much as you wish the tree growing out of the person’s head would magically disappear, it won’t. Wait for the subject to move to a clean position, allow yourself the freedom to reposition yourself or, if possible, have the subject preposition itself.
A background can be more easily thrown out of focus via the use of a wide-open aperture. The faster the lens, the wider the aperture that can be used. This being said, even if you use a lens whose widest aperture is ƒ/5.6, if other factors fall into place (see below), use ƒ/5.6 to create a wash of color behind the primary subject so the viewer knows what the subject is—think simplicity.
A background can be more easily thrown out of focus via the use of a telephoto lens. The longer the lens, the narrower the view. The narrower the view, the less there is behind the subject. Additionally, the longer the lens, the more difficult it is to create a deep depth of field. With this in mind, use your most telephoto lens to make the image. Used in conjunction with a wide aperture, backgrounds can more easily be thrown out of focus unless, of course, the subject is very close to it.
The farther the subject resides from the background, the easier it is to create an out-of-focus background that doesn’t compete for attention with it. If an animal, flower, tree branch or other natural object is close to the background, optically, it can’t be thrown out of focus. But, if it’s far enough away, the use of a long lens in combination with a wide aperture can result in a background that’s clean and complements the subject.
Sometimes you get lucky and the subject naturally appears in front of an unobtrusive background. This is serendipitous, and be thankful when it occurs. Often, a change in your position can help control this. Squat down to a lower position, elevate your position or move to your right or left. When it falls into place as easily as this, be thankful.
Create a black background via the use of flash. When you make photos of macro subjects, flash can be used as a main light. If the flash is close to the subject and the background appears a bit away, given how fast light from a flash falls off, backgrounds are often rendered black. If the subject doesn’t have dark edges, it’s a good time to use this tool. The reason I bring up the point about dark edges is you don’t want a tone merger where the insect or flower is recorded at the same density as the background. The viewer won’t be able to differentiate where the subject ends and the background begins. Another trick when making macro images is to bring a piece of colored cardboard and hold it in back of the subject. Blue is good to imply it was shot against a sky and green works great to imply vegetation.
Harmonize the background with the subject so they complement each other. This can be done via the use of color. Try to use colors that appear on opposite sides of a color wheel. For instance, magenta and green are on opposite sides. As a result, when they appear in the same photo, the warm tone jumps out against the other more easily.
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