Look at the background

If I had to choose the one most important composition tip it would be to really look at the background before you take a picture.

When we photograph something we concentrate on that something, on the subject of the photo – after all that is what we are photographing, and when we concentrate on one thing we ignore everything around it (that is what concentration is after all – so when we take a photo, unless we make a point of looking at the background, we just don’t see it.

This tends to lead to disappointment when we look at the photo and see our great subject in front of an ugly dirty trash can (or, for pictures taken indoors, in front of a pile of dirty laundry).

This leaves us with two options – the first is to digitally remove the problematic object in the background (the few latest versions of Photoshop are absolutely amazing at that), the other option is to fix it while taking the picture and make a mental effort to look at the background before pressing the shutter.

“Fixing” the bad background is actually easy If you notice it, the easiest option is to move your subject to a better background (if possible) but you can also move right or left to throw the problem out of frame, you can shoot down the use the ground as a background or shoot up to use the sky, you can even use a flash to make the background brighter or darker in relation to the subject.

So next time you take a picture before you press the shutter take a look at the background, look for trash, dirty laundry and other objects you don’t want to include, look for mess and clutter and while your at it look for objects in the background that blend in with your subject (we’ll talk more in the future about separating the subject from the background)

Using zoom to control the background

It’s obvious we can zoom in and out to make our subject bigger or smaller in the frame and to control the amount of background in the photo – but many people don’t realize that we can control those two factors individually by also using our legs.

For todays demonstration I’ve attached a teddy bear to a lightstand to get it to about human height (just one of the fun things you get to do when you write a photography blog) and placed it in front of a tree.

I zoomed all the way in and took this picture:

Not bad at all, the tree gives us a a nice dark green background for the entire frame, this is a very good setup if I wanted to take a portrait shot.

An interesting thing about this shot is that it could have been taken anywhere – the tree in the background is sort of a low cost replacements for a background stand with some textured fabric roll on it (and the weather cooperated by being all cloudy and giving me nice soft portrait lighting)

You can’t tell if the picture was taken in my back yard, in a forest or in a city in front of the only tree on the street – this is a good thing if you want to to a studio-style portrait but pretty bad if it’s a photo from your last trip and you want it to show where you were (or if you want to include some of the environment because it tells something about your subject).

I then zoomed all the way out and moved closer so the bear looks about the same in the frame, I didn’t move the bear (or the tree) at all, the only thing that moved is me, also, I moved in a strait line in the direction of the bear, I didn’t change my shooting angle – and I’ve got this:

Suddenly you see a whole lot of the environment, bad if you want to focus only on your model but very good for an environmental portrait or a vacation photos.

The effect is easy to understand if we use a diagram (and I just love diagrams):

There’s just one important detail to remember – people look bad when photographed from a very close distance, so don’t take this technique to the extreme at the close end.