Compose for the Background

Starting tomorrow, June 9th –
Exploring Nik Software’s Snapseed for the iPad.

Tune in then, but in the meantime ….

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We see many images with good potential that are ruined by the background – usually because it is a distraction when, instead, it should complement the subject. This is where what I call Composing for the Background comes in. This aspect of your composition is every bit as important as the treatment of your main subject – more, I believe, because if it’s done wrong everything else is wasted.
My following examples are found in nature because outdoor photography is “my thing”. The same principles apply to other genre though.
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What you need to do

starts – and ends – with the goal of not allowing the background to become a distraction. Simplify it!!

You don’t want the viewer’s eye spending undo time wandering around aimlessly back there. Among the things that you can do are –

  • Choose a plain background. Duh! There’s a reason that portrait studios use more or less plain solid backgrounds – the portrait is about the person and not what surrounds them.

You can try using an open field or even a forest as long as the nearest trees can be “disguised” by being thrown out of focus via a shallow depth of field, or
Just about anything that isn’t too “busy” and preferably at an adequate distance to be softened via DOF
Complementary colors (softly blurred) are a plus
In a pinch, carry a “backdrop” with you. A collapsible diffusion disk with black/white/silver/gold covers works great.
If you need help with focus & DOF there are 17 posts on the subject in the Table of Contents; scroll to the Focus section heading
If you’re making an image which is a portrait of a flower or critter, shouldn’t you try to do the same as the studio photographer?

  • You can simplify the background “in the wild” often just by a slight change in your position relative to the subject.
  • Using selective focus – a very shallow depth of field – in combination with your carefully selected position will usually do the trick.
  • Try what I do, especially with flowers in a setting where there are lots of them.

First look for a background – usually in the form of colors that will appeal when reduced to a smooth colorful blur
Once you’ve found your background THEN look around for a subject that you can shoot against this background.
I know that this sounds backwards, but give it a try.
This is exactly the approach that I took with the feature image at the beginning. What? How could I have known that the dragonfly subject would conveniently land right in the spot that I picked out after  choosing a pond of water lillies for my background? For the answer to that question (shooting fast moving critters?) read On Becoming an Expert in Your Subject Matter. It’s important to fight the temptation to show too much – like those beautiful water lillies. In this case they are the background and to show them more clearly only makes them a distraction. Simplify!!

It almost goes without saying that you should be shooting in aperture priority since control of your f/stop (DOF) is crucial. Or manual.
Examples follow; all were made in a one week period no more than an hour from home. Shoot often; shoot where you know the territory and can get to it quickly – that’s not a game preserve in Africa.
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Although the background is only about 2 feet away, DOF simplified it.
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In contrast to the 1st butterfly image, this one took advantage of a 2nd flower (planned) and a 2nd BF (luck) to create a type of background that I call a “Visual ECHO” (echo, echo, ….). It complements the foreground. The echo, just like its sound counterpart, should be softer and less distinct than the main subject – to do otherwise ruins the effect by becoming a 2nd point with equal importance to the main subject.
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This shot of two damselflies is an example of what not to do. I was down on the ground amidst the grass where they were. Too many grass seed heads too close to the subjects – which distract the eye.
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In contrast to the 1st damselfly image, this one demonstrates a simplified background. Admittedly you can’t always get what you want – in photography or life.
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About 10 feet above a stream. Lined this up with the shaded far bank, about 30′ away, as my background. Piece of cake.
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Along side Skyline Drive, Shenandoah NP, with the forest about 10′ behind this Turks Cap lily. The only trick was to find an angle where the green background was more or less uniform (no branches, tree trunks or other stuff) and use DOF to deal the the rest. The subdued stem of the plant and the top leaf provide a subtle leading line.
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Wrapping this up are three “echo” examples. The main “trick” to these is camera position (usually close to the ground as you can see here) and choosing an f/stop that’s “just right” – not totally blurred and not too sharp (shoot several starting at wide open followed by 2 or 3 each closing down the aperture one stop. For me that would be 2.8, 4, 5.6 & 8. The right answer will depend on the geometry/distances in your scene.)



Be conscious of where your echos are placed. As contrasted to a totally blurred background, they are additional elements in your visual design and, as such, must be placed with care! Note the 1st two of the three examples as opposed to the third. I was careful with the spacing|separation in the 1st two (no overlap), but wish  that I’d moved an inch or two to my right in the 3rd because of the overlap between subject and the next flower back – the rest I don’t mind.
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Compose for your background. You can’t treat it as an after thought!
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