Controlling backgrounds – Malaga harbour 2016

The reasons why – controlling picture backgrounds

A picture has the potential to either sing or sag with the assistance of the background. For me, the background is a real make or break issue for a cohesive and integrated picture.


A Flamenco bar in Granada, Southern Spain  

This type of location will always provide a challenge for the photographer looking for a sympathetic background and helpful lighting. The challenge is to abstract meaning from the whole that still has meaning to the viewer.


The word “background” could also mean:

  •        Context
  •        Circumstances
  •        Relationship


Ignore the background at your peril

Backgrounds simply put will either make or break your picture. The number of times I have thought right subject, wrong background” are too many to count. Backgrounds are so important they are a deal breaker between the photographer, the subject and the viewer.

Camera Position

The camera position in terms of height and lateral movement may require fine tuning to hide a distraction in the background behind a foreground subject. You may only need to move a few centimetres to your left or right to make a light toned the background disappear behind the larger foreground subject.

In many situations the background should be the first consideration, for example when doing product shots or illustrative pictures where you do not want the background to conflict with the subject.


Changing Camera position

There is of course the possibility that you do not have the opportunity to change the background by moving the camera viewpoint position. There is always the cliched joke about the camera club judge saying this picture would have been better taken 3 feet the left and the photographer replying 3 feet to the left would have been over the cliff edge. So it is not always possible when it is worth investigating.


Controlling picture backgrounds – Embedding Skill Exercise

Street photography is a great way to learn about appropriate backgrounds. Take a series of shots in an urban situation with the aim of the bringing the foreground and background of the shot together to help tell a story.

Hot Hint

The background is an equal and integral part of the pictures message to the viewer.

If the subject is right but the background is not helping, look for a different viewpoint to supply a more sympathetic background.

Hot Hint

Changing the background by moving to a different viewpoint and the meaning of the picture may also be transformed.

Opposite is an alternative to the feature picture above. In this composition the light tone at the middle right is removed leaving a distraction in the background.
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