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Somewhere, in some art school, an old photography teacher is wandering the halls admonishing people to “watch your backgrounds!”

Clarifying backgrounds, freeing them of unnecessary clutter is something every photographer is taught and it only becomes clear when all the mistakes have been made and the idea becomes second nature to us. Ruined photographs, the “if only’s.” We’ve all seen them: photographs of people with a tree sticking out of their ear, courtesy of a photographer paying a great deal of attention to the subject and nothing at all to the background. Or the subject and the background are both so sharply in focus that it is hard to tell what the picture is about. Maybe the background is so bright the viewer’s eye is drawn away from the subject, or maybe the photographer didn’t notice the garbage cans placed so conveniently right behind the subject.

With so many distractions and potential pitfalls awaiting the photographer, both in the studio and on location, it is a wonder any photographs get made at all. Fortunately, the idea of creating backgrounds befitting subjects is a learned skill, some pick it up quicker than others, some take longer, but it can be learned and it usually is, after many a good photograph is thrown away with some regret.

There are ways to fix backgrounds in a computer after the fact, but the best and most honest work is always done in camera. And not all incoherent backgrounds need to be fixed. The proper use of selection can sometimes yield a picture that needs a sharply focused background. Every now and again, with purpose and intention, the tree sticking out of the client’s ear may be quite useful; it might just make a statement about the person your photographing. Knowing how and when to make use of background, to blur or not to blur, is what separates the rejects from the framed winners.

Distance Your Subject from the Background

This much is obvious: when photographing people, it is a general rule of thumb to make the subject the dominant component of the picture. It is accomplished by blurring the background to a sufficient degree to make the subject stand out, and that can be achieved a number of ways. The first method is simple: move your subject away from the background; put some distance between the subject and background.

Young Boy Holding Basketball

Choose a Relevant Background

The reverse of this, of course, is to choose a background that is suitable to the subject at hand. If you photograph a garage mechanic, having a supermarket in the background is a distraction. But if you put that same mechanic in front of a pile of old cars, or a mountain of auto parts, then the background, blurred or sharp makes sense, though it’s usually a good idea to create some separation between subject and background for effect.

Fill Your Frame with Your Subject

Another way to accomplish this is to move closer to the subject, thereby changing the ratio relationship between camera, subject and background. When you move closer to your subject without changing the subject’s distance from the background. It never hurts to fill up the frame of your camera as much as possible to make the subject dominant and effectively eliminating the background altogether at the same time.

Reduce Depth of Field

Another method, and probably even more obvious than the first, is to reduce depth-of-field by opening up your aperture as wide as possible. This will always do the trick. Just remember to compensate your exposure by increasing you shutter speed proportionately, using what is known as the inverse square law, which says that for every stop in one direction, the shutter speed must go the same amount in the opposite direction to achieve the same relative exposure. If, with your digital camera, you can’t get shallow enough a depth to your photograph, try decreasing the ISO. You can pick up and extra stop or two that way (and conversely, if you need more speed, simply bump the ISO higher).

Twin Newborn Portrait

If you can’t find a way to blur you background sufficiently, move somewhere else and keep moving until your eye finds what it’s looking for. It can’t be stressed enough to say that intuitive selection of backgrounds and the ways in which you can use your camera to create a proper balance between subject and background is a learned skill that takes time and attention to get good at. All it takes is a little attention, the kind of attention you’re already paying your subject.

Remember: “Watch Your Backgrounds!”

James Schuck

James Schuck is a writer and photographer working in Southern California. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has photographed everything from Architecture to Auto Parts to Cookies to Portraits and Weddings.

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