backgrounds

Most people, when they start out in photography, shoot in much the same way. They see the subject; they frame it in the middle of the viewfinder; and they shoot. They pay very little attention to what is going behind it (the background) or in front of it (the foreground). Putting the principal subject in the middle of the frame, and paying attention only to the principal subject, are questions of composition; but backgrounds and foregrounds can usefully be considered as another question.

There are essentially two kinds of background problem. The first is the distracting background: there is something more interesting than the intended subject in the background, or at least something more eye-catching, or simply something that is incongruous, and this distracts attention from the principal subject. The other is that the subject is poorly differentiated from the background.

Likewise there are normally two kinds of foreground problems. One is unwanted items in the foreground, such as a discarded cigarette packet. The other is simply emptiness: the background is big and blank and boring. The novice doesn't notice either because his attention is fixed on the principal subject.

 

Vine and wall

Sometimes, the background is the story. Here, the weathered ochre of the wall is at least as important as the vine and the wires that support it. This is stating the obvious -- except that it isn't necessarily obvious until you state it. Roger used a Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux to shoot this in Slovenia; film stock was Kodak EBX.

looking carefully through the viewfinder

In all cases, the important thing is to train yourself to look at everything in the viewfinder, not just the principal subject. This is very difficult at first, and involves a conscious effort of will. You actually have to stop and ask yourself, "If there anything awkward in the background? And is the foreground dull?"

Slowly, this becomes almost second nature. No-one can avoid distracting backgrounds without fail, but you can reduce their incidence to a vanishingly small proportion of your shots.

is the main subject interesting?

One more question you need to ask yourself is whether the main subject really is interesting enough to draw attention. People are always a major draw, for example, and so are animals. This is the result of millions of years of evolution, scanning the horizon for potential threats and meals. But with a subtle, intellectual, semi-abstract image, your only hope may be to come in close and crop out all inessential background or foreground. Otherwise people will simply say, "What is the picture about?"

 

Passion Play, Guadalupe, California

This is an unusual picture in that mid-tones stand out against both light and dark background tones; usually, it is easier to contrast light with dark or dark with light. Even the colours are similar, but there is still plenty of differentiation. Part of this, of course, is because the subjects are people, who always draw the eye and stand out against a background. Roger shot this in the warm light of the setting sun with a Leica M4P and 35/1.4 Summilux on Fuji RFP ISO 50.

distracting backgrounds

Dealing with distracting backgrounds comes in two stages. The first stage is simply avoiding or 'losing' unwanted picture elements. The second is trying to make sure that the background actually complements the main subject. Both can be achieved in at least seven ways. You can move the subject; or change your viewpoint; or change the camera orientation (vertical or horizontal); or conceal the background behind something else; or use differential focus; or pan; or modify the image after you have taken the picture (post production work).

1  move the subject

Or wait for it to move... This may seem obvious, but it's often the easiest approach when you are shooting people, cars or anything else that can be moved. You may also be able to come back at another time: a boat, for example, may swing with the tide.

The only real problem is when both the background and the foreground are important, as they often are with snapshots: This Is Aunt Fanny In Front Of The Eiffel Tower. Even then, asking the subject to move a bit may well give you are far better composition.

Cleaning the catch, South India

All right, the background could be better -- but by via waiting and differential focus (#5 below) Roger managed to separate the three main figures adequately from the background: the only real problems are behind the head of the man in the middle. The big white blob on the right is clear proof that an out-of-focus background can sometimes be more distracting than one that is in focus (#5 again). But if you crop any more on the right you lose the fish... Nikon F, 200/3 Vivitar Series 1, Fuji RFP ISO 50

2  change viewpoint

If you can't move the subject -- or even if you can -- it is often worth exploring different viewpoints: left, right, up, down, closer, further away. This is one reason why we believe that prime lenses are better than zooms: they more or less force you to move closer or further away, instead of just standing in one place and twisting the zoom ring.

On the other hand, there can be a lot to be said for changing focal length. You will greatly change the spatial relationships within a picture by standing close to your subject and using a wide angle lens, or standing further away and using a longer focal length. Almost paradoxically, both can be used to reduce the problem of distracting backgrounds. With a wide-angle, the background will appear smaller in comparison with the subject, and formerly distracting elements may shrink into insignificance. With a longer lens, you will cover a much smaller area of the background, and you may therefore be able to crop out unwanted elements.

Bicycle, Rhodes

This apparently artless shot had to be quite carefully composed to ensure adequate differentiation from the background. In particular the right handlebar (our left, of course) disappeared all too easily against the dark window if the viewpoint was any further to the left and moving the viewpoint up or down made a surprising difference to the amount of light reflected from the rear wheel rim. A tiny bit of dodging (in Adobe Photoshop) increased the differentiation of the rear mudguard from the door. This looks quite clumsy when it is drawn to your attention but most people won't notice it otherwise.

Extreme viewpoints, typically very high ('bird's-eye view') or very low ('worm's-eye view) are often counselled by photo magazines both as a means of dealing with difficult backgrounds and as a means of introducing extra impact to your pictures. This is a perfectly valid approach, but it can easily be overdone: the picture ends up looking like an illustration from a how-to article, rather than an attractive photograph. There is rarely much sense in adopting such extreme viewpoints unless you have to. Much the same reasoning applies to extreme wide-angle shots (including fish-eye shots) and extreme telephoto shots: unless there is some compelling aesthetic or practical reason to use extreme focal lengths, the resulting shots can look forced and contrived.

The classic background problem for the novice is the tree growing out of someone's head, and usually this can be solved faster by moving the photographer's viewpoint than by shouting "Can you move a bit to the left? No, my left..." and so forth. Another is the distracting sign in the street: something you don't notice at first, but which is glaringly obvious in the final shot. This is often easiest to deal with by changing focal length, or via the next trick, which is concealing the background.

3  change camera orientation

With any camera having a rectangular format, you can switch from 'portrait' (vertical) to 'landscape' (horizontal) orientation or vice versa. With square format cameras you can mentally plan to crop such a format from a square format, though arguably this is closer to post production (see below).

 

 

Alabama State Capitol

As compared with the changes wrought by transferring from 'landscape' to 'portrait' orientation (see free Glossary) the change in viewpoint is trivial. Roger used a Leica M4-P, 35/1.4 Summilux and Fuji RFP ISO 50 for this shot.

4  conceal the background

The most dedicated proponent of this technique was a travel photographer we used to know. Each morning he would buy a big bunch of flowers, which he would then use in the foreground of numerous pictures to conceal parked cars, traffic signs, road works and the like. As he disarmingly explained, no-one ever minds out-of-focus flowers in the foreground of a travel shot. Another trick, somewhat related, is to carry a small mirror, no more than six to eight inches (15 to 20cm) square. Out of focus, in the foreground, this can reflect the sky or whatever else you can catch in it.

There are numerous less extreme ways of achieving similar effects, though. Trees and indeed flowers are always handy, but a shiny motor-car can be a surprisingly useful ally too, especially if you can get an interesting reflection in it. Often, it is a question of choosing the least of a number of evils: trading a "NO ENTRY" sign over there for a "PUBLIC TOILETS" sign over here.

5  use differential focus

A simple option is to focus only on the principal subject and then shoot at or near full aperture so that the background is thrown out of focus. Once again this is much lauded in photo magazines and books but it is growing steadily more difficult. It is easiest with reasonably long, fast lenses, and the larger the format, the easier. You can do quite convincing differential focus with (say) an 80/2.8 on medium format, but on 35mm you need a 50/1.4 or an 85/1.9 or the like and by the time you are shooting on digital sensors with a zoom lens of f/3.5 or slower you probably won't be able to get enough differentiation.

It is worth remembering that an out-of-focus background may sometimes be more distracting than one that is sharp, because people spend altogether too much time in trying to work out what it is: if it were sharp, they would glance at it and dismiss it. In other words, differential focus is likelier to work against a hedge or a plain wall than it is to work against a crowded street scene.

 

 

Band practice, Murphy's, California

Differential focus is not a technique we use very much, though others employ it with great success. It's often a trade-off. Would it be better here if the horn player were sharp too? Without doubt, though, the rest of the background would be a lot more distracting if it were in sharper focus.

We normally use fast lenses at wide apertures principally when we need the speed, rather than for differential focus in good light.

Roger used his 90/2 Summicron on a Leica M2 for this shot; film stock was Ilford XP1 (yes, it's that old). It is a more recent print, however, on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

6  pan

Panning is the art of following a moving subject so that the subject stays sharp and the background is blurred. Obviously, the trick is that the subject remains more or less stationary relative to the film: at the very least, moving slowly enough to be 'frozen' by the shutter. The background, because it is moving relative to the film, blurs.

Although this can be an extremely useful technique, it does require a certain amount of practice. Also, as with out-of-focus backgrounds, a blurred but distinctive background can be every bit as distracting as one that is in sharp focus.

With any shot that involves movement, it is a good idea to leave more space in front of the subject than behind it, so that the subject can 'move into' the picture. Otherwise, there is an irrational but uncomfortable feeling that somehow they will crash into the other side of the picture. A good way to ensure dramatic background blur when panning is to use an aperture priority exposure program at the smallest aperture that the lens in use permits -- and, of course, don't use film that is too fast.

Belle Epoque

The very 'busy' background is somewhat less obtrusive as a result of the panning. Nikon D70, standard zoom ISO 200; about 1/10 second at f/16

7  post-production

The most extreme example of this is 'blocking out' or 'cutting out', where the image of the subject is cut out (physically or electronically) and presented against a different background -- though this is pretty much indistinguishable from the next heading, which deals with differentiating the subject from the background. There are however several other ways to reduce the impact of distracting features in the background.

The classic approach in black and white was simply to vignette the image so that everything around the main subject faded away to white paper. Another traditional approach was heavy local burning, so that something that was light and distracting was darkened to the same sort of tone as the rest of the background. And indeed there was always airbrushing, where parts of the background were literally painted in.

With computer manipulation, it is often possible to use the 'clone' tool to copy inoffensive parts of the background over those parts that you do not want to see. Anything much more extreme than this should be approached with extreme caution: using 'blur' and 'smudge' and the like in backgrounds often results in effects that are disquietingly non-photographic and indeed can be more distracting than the same image before manipulation.

And, of course, there is simple cropping. There is nothing sacred about any camera format: by all means crop a square format to rectangular, or a rectangular format to square.

 

Drag race, Selma, Alabama

There is a great deal of post-production work in this picture. The original image (right) was cropped, then retouched to lose the wires that still festooned the trees, along with the traffic cone on the left. At the same time, the saturation of the yellow car was increased somewhat -- all in Adobe Photoshop. You can however just see a face above the roof of the car: we decided to leave that in.

 

 

 

Roger used Kodak Ektachrome 100, a Leica M4P and 90/2 Summicron. It was far from the ideal equipment but it was what he had with him when he was unexpectedly invited to a good ol' boys-type drag race.

dull backgrounds

Backgrounds that are distracting by reason of their very dullness are unusual but far from unknown. Plain seamless paper backgrounds are dullest of all, which is one reason why dappled backgrounds are so popular, though these can also be pretty bland. The best way around this with portraits is often via lighting: if you look at Hollywood portraits you will find that quite often, there is shaped light (spot lit areas, shaded areas) on the background to break up a dull, monotonous expanse. Both Lighting for Photographers and Hollywood Portraits have more information about this technique.

With still lifes, it is often best to find a more interesting background: brown paper, screwed up and smoothed out, is a good standby, as are fabrics and weathered wood.

Tankard, asparagus, artichokes

Roger shot this for 'alternative process' printing (POP and Argyrotype -- see free Glossary) on 5x7 inch Ilford FP4 using a Gandolfi Variant and a 210/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-N. The background is a builder's drop cloth onto which dye has been sponged to create variations in texture. Such backgrounds should always be stored wadded up: neat folds look much worse!

insufficient differentiation between subject and background

In black and white, you need to ensure that you are photographing dark-against-light or light-against-dark or both. The darkness or lightness may be an inherent quality of the subject, such as a piece of coal against a white background, or it can be a result of the lighting. You can also use filtration. Red and green may register as very similar tones without a filter, but add a red filter and you will lighten the red and darken the green. A green filter will have the opposite effect. Any filter will lighten its own colour and darken its complementary.

 

 

Monument Park, outside Budapest

A very slight change of viewpoint has given much better differentiation of the light face against the dark stone, and recomposing so that the statue looms still higher in the frame has also added to the impact. Roger shot this on Kodak EBX with a Voigtländer Bessa R2 and a 35/1.7 Ultron, under-exposing slightly to 'pop' the colours.

 

In colour, of course, you have the additional choice of differentiating via colour. Complementary colours generally separate best, though saturation has a lot to do with it -- more saturated colours stand out better against less saturated -- and some colours attract the eye more than others, red being the classic example.

Out of doors, differentiation is mostly a matter of viewpoint, commonly allied with different focal lengths, but it can also be greatly influenced by time of day. It is quite possible, for example, for a statue and the building behind it to be all but identical in tone when the sun is full on both, but for the building to slip into shadow well before the statue, thereby conferring much better differentiation.

lighting

In the studio, as ever, do not neglect the possibility of lighting the background separately, or using flags or gobos (both described in the free Glossary)or in our book Lighting for Photographers) to create interesting patterns of light and shade on the background, the better to differentiate the subject from it.

Frances

This is the shot from which the head-shot in the 'about us' page was cropped. Roger shot it on Ilford HP5 Plus using a Nikon F and a 90/4 Dreamagon soft-focus lens.

The lighting looks a bit like a halo in this uncropped version, but hey, that's all right too. It was accomplished with an old-fashioned focusing spot, the sort with a lens instead of just a reflector. The light on Frances was a soft box overhead (see the free Glossary) plus a Lastolite Tri-Flector underneath her face, just out of shot.

This print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, very lightly toned in selenium.

unwanted items in the foreground

The most useful approach here is often 'gardening', to wit, simply removing the offending item. If you do a lot of this you may want to keep a packet of disposable gloves in your pocket and a load of plastic carrier bags in the trunk of the car. Less ethically, you can often just kick it out of shot or behind something else.

Obviously there is a lot you can do by selecting viewpoint, and there is a modest amount you can do with differential focus and even panning, but after that, it is often down to post-production. Again, the 'clone' tool in Adobe Photoshop can be your best friend.

 

Small Tibetan monk, large Indian bicycle

This is an interesting one. The first picture library to which we submitted this picture said they wouldn't be able to use it because of the squashed dung on the road. The second said that this was what made the picture so authentic... Nowadays, of course, one could simply clone it out in Adobe Photoshop or something similar. Quite honestly, Roger just didn't notice it when he took the picture in the early 1980s. This was in Dehra Dun in the foothills of the Himalayas. Leica M2 and 35/1.4 Summilux, Kodachrome 64.

dull or 'empty' foregrounds

In some pictures, a lot of foreground is an inherent part of the composition. Many of the most successful are what we call these 'whole lot of nothing' pictures, where there is plenty of surrounding context and the subject is relatively small. The problem comes when there are things to look at in the background, but the foreground is just dull.

Several of the tricks already described are relevant. Obviously a lot can be done by careful choice of viewpoint. A wide-angle lens can give you strong foreground interest because you are very close to the subject: there just isn't much foreground between you and it. Likewise, a long-focus lens can have much the same effect, again eliminating unwanted foreground.

Even so, there are times when you need other tricks as well.

cropping

The simplest is often to crop the picture to a longer, thinner format. If there is nothing in the foreground, after all, why not crop it?

There may, however, be reasons why you don't want to do this. You may want all the pictures in a series to be uniform in shape, or you may be wedded to printing 'all in' with a black border from a filed-out negative carrier. Well, we will come back to some more tricks after this picture:

Century Freeway, Los Angeles

There was nothing in the foreground, so Frances just cropped it out. This gives a much better idea of the swooping yet essentially linear structure of the freeway. Camera was a Nikon F, and lens a 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor; film, Ilford SFX. What remains of the foreground is fairly heavily burned in (see below).

burning in

Sometimes you can distract attention from an overly large dull foreground by simply burning in (darkening) the offending area, usually gradually so that the nearest foreground (the lowest part of the picture) is darker than the area behind it. This concentrates attention on the lighter centre part of the picture: the eye always tends to go to the light part of a picture first.

foreground interest

Whenever you can, introduce foreground interest. The trick with the flowers, described above, may be suitable. So is the use of strong lines: if there are patterned paving stones, these can add just enough interest to the foreground to stop it looking dull, without actually detracting from the main subject. Low walls, flowerbeds, a child playing -- almost anything will do, provided it doesn't take over the picture. This is partly a question of viewpoint, but also of thinking about what will work as a foreground, rather than just hoping for the best.

A lot can depend on weather (when shooting out of doors) or lighting (in the studio). Shadows can make an excellent foreground 'filler' but you won't get shadows on a dull day.

 

 

Notre Dame, Paris

Notre Dame is hard to photograph: we keep trying different approaches. Here, a carefully leveled ultra-wide-angle lens (14/3.5 Sigma on Nikon F) has introduced rather odd distortion in the lamp post. As far as we recall Frances shot this using Fuji RFP.

frames

A special example of foreground interest is the use of frames. These can be full, literal frames such as doors or windows, or partial frames on three or even two sides of the image. A classic example of the latter is a garden framed by a weeping willow. In fact, an extreme example of a frame may be on one side only, up against the sky. In one sense this is foreground interest, but it may do the work of a frame by cutting off the rest of the picture from the limitless sky overhead.

In the case of a full frame, it is generally a good idea to include some detail in the frame instead of just making it a silhouette, though with partial frames you can often get away with a silhouette if it's not too big and heavy.

Sherab Ling

A very unusual frame -- a tree and prayer flags -- but it greatly adds to the foreground interest which otherwise is no more than a rough track. It also adds to the impression of depth. We shot a good deal at this Tibetan monastery with a variety of cameras and lenses: this shot, we are reasonably sure, is one of Roger's taken with a Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux on Ilford XP2 Super.

the bottom line

As we say above, the bottom line is simply looking through the viewfinder and taking the time to check everything. It's hard at first, but it gets easier. And, as so often, there is no substitute for practice. Go through your old pictures and ask yourself which ones have problems with backgrounds or foregrounds, and why, and which ones succeed, and why. Then go out and shoot some more.

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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks