“Keying in on the Background” (August issue of Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter)

Anytime we read or talk about composition, about 99% of the time is spent on the “subject” of the composition … “center the subject”, “place the subject off-center”, do this … do that. While placing the subject in a certain area, in a certain light, etc., is important to the overall composition, the often overlooked background can be just as important. This is especially true for new or inexperienced photographers.

This Photo Tip is going to discuss some things to consider whenever making an image, particularly when the subject matter is a person or an animal. Whenever we are making travel images or landscapes, these tips will not always apply, at least for a lot of images. With that said, let’s discuss some things we can do to enhance our background.

First, try simplifying the background. In other words, let’s try not to shoot a subject in front of a “busy” background. And what is a busy background? Basically anything that distracts the eye away from the main subject matter (unless that is your goal). Distracting backgrounds can include a lot of bare tree branches, specular hightlights on water, reflections, basically anything that clutters up the background and drags viewers away from the subject. How can we improve these situations? Several things should be considered. First, if it is possible, move a bit to one side or the other. This will often cause the background to change from a busy or distracting background to one that is much more subtle. If this is not possible, maybe a change in the lens will help. If you use a tighter lens (i.e., more of a telephoto lens), you will likely minimize the amount of background, which might help make it less busy/distracting. Also, a telephoto lens, due to it’s tendancy to compress items in the composition, will often blur the background and make it less busy.

Another thing to try is to use as large an Aperture setting (lens opening) as you can. Remember, the smaller the f/stop number is, the larger the Aperture opening. Using a large Aperture will tend to cause the background to fall more out of focus (this is why landscapes should always be shot with a very small (i.e., f/22 or smaller) Aperture). For example, using an Aperture of f/2.8 or f/4 would be much better for shooting a person or animal in front of a busy background, since the background would be more out of focus. This technique is of great importance if you are trying to photograph wild animals in a busy/distracting surrounding, since moving around is often not a viable option.

If possible, you could always move the subject farther away from the distracting background. This will usually work because the depth of field will cause a further-away background to be in soft focus, or even totally blurry. In either situation, this will cause the background to be less distracting, which is the purpose of moving back.

If all else fails, in many cases you can select and then blur the background by using an image editing program, such as Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. But this technique is reserved for the serious photographer, due to the enormous cost of these programs and the relative difficulty in learning them.

So the next time you are photographing a person or animal in a busy or distracting surrounding, try these tips to see if they work for you. If you have some other techniques you’d like to share with everyone, just e-mail me your suggestions and I will include them in next month’s Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter. You can e-mail me at at this convenient link: showmenaturepix@hotmail.com

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