Background Awareness in Photography

The Back­ground — What is Going on in the Background

One of the key fac­tors that sep­a­rate the novice pho­tog­ra­pher from the advanced pho­tog­ra­pher is the back­ground. Novice pho­tog­ra­phers just pho­to­graph the prin­ci­pal sub­ject (baby, dog, grandpa etc.) and don’t pay atten­tion to the back­ground. This is a huge mis­take. The back­ground is an impor­tant part of any pho­to­graph, and in most cases you can con­trol it in var­i­ous ways.

The first and eas­i­est step involves aware­ness. Be aware of what’s going on in the back­ground. Let’s say you are pho­tograph­ing a baby being held by mom out­doors on the patio. You can place the mom pretty much any­where that is safe for her and the baby. Let’s say you have her sit­ting on a chair. Now what is going on in the back­ground? Can you see the street? Is there a park­ing lot behind her? Is there a tele­phone pole behind her? Does the bal­cony rail­ing look like it’s going through the mom’s head? Once you learn to pay atten­tion to the back­ground you can then make judg­ment calls as to whether the back­ground is dis­tract­ing or not.

In gen­eral, back­ground objects should not inter­sect with the prin­ci­pal sub­ject. The back­ground should blend with the fore­ground and not become a dis­trac­tion. In our exam­ple above if there was a tele­phone pole right behind the mom’s head, or the back­ground was a park­ing lot lit­tered with garbage, then that would be dis­tract­ing (unless you wanted it that way and were AWARE of it) In this exam­ple it might well be best to have trees in the back­ground, or to place the actual build­ing wall behind the sub­ject. These types of back­grounds don’t draw atten­tion to them­selves and so they empha­size the prin­ci­pal sub­ject of the photograph.

An advanced pho­tog­ra­pher will always be aware of the back­ground. If there are some dis­tract­ing ele­ments in the scene, the pho­tog­ra­pher can move dis­tract­ing objects, change his/her angle, change loca­tions or even shoot a close-up if possible.

Aper­ture (Click here for a full expla­na­tion on con­trol­ling aper­ture) refers to the size of the open­ing in a lens. If you are using a reg­u­lar or dig­i­tal SLR you can con­trol the size of the aper­ture. Aper­tures are mea­sured in F-stops where larger aper­ture num­bers (i.e. F 22, F 32 etc) mean that the actual lens open­ing is get­ting SMALLER. A good way to think of it is as a frac­tion. 1/22 is larger than 1/32. Con­versely, smaller aper­ture num­bers ( F 1.4, F 2.8 etc.) mean that the the lens open­ing is get­ting larger. This is impor­tant to know because the size of the aper­ture also affects the sharp­ness of the fore­ground and back­ground. A large aper­ture will make the back­ground some­what blurry. A small aper­ture will keep both the fore­ground and the back­ground sharp.


F-2.0 A shal­low depth of field. Note how the fore­ground is sharper than the background.


F-16 A large depth of field. Note how both the fore­ground and back­ground are sharp.

This is an impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion to take into account. In the exam­ple above with the mother and baby, you might well want to choose a large aper­ture like F 2.0 or F 2.8. That way the back­ground will be thrown out of focus which usu­ally makes for a very pleas­ing por­trait. On the other hand let’s say you were tak­ing a land­scape shot. In this case you might well want to keep both the fore­ground and the back­ground sharp. In this case you might want to choose an aper­ture of F-16 or F-22.

The viewfinder as a clock

A good tech­nique for exam­in­ing what’s going on in the scene is to look at your viewfinder like a clock. When most peo­ple look though the viewfinder all they usu­ally see is the fore­ground. A good tech­nique to ‘see’ the whole scene is to look through the viewfinder and treat the scene as a clock. What is going on at 12:00, 1:00, 3:00 etc. By doing this you will see where the dis­tract­ing ele­ments are and how you can min­i­mize them. Although this tech­nique may take a few extra moments at the begin­ning of the ses­sion the result­ing pho­tographs will improve immensely.

© and Marko Kulik
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