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controlling picture backgrounds

B for Background


Controlling picture backgrounds
– The reasons why


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.

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.

controlling picture backgrounds
controlling picture backgrounds

Right – 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 – controlling picture backgrounds

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 – controlling picture backgrounds

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.


What is your Intent for the picture, how are you going to control picture backgrounds?

The background for pictures of the descriptive reality type is likely to be exactly as found without any intervening or tidying by the photographer, to tell the truth in a most complete and candid way.  With an interpretative picture the photographer will make a picture that is the expression of what they saw and felt at the taking stage plus potential post-processing to aid the look to be achieved.


Hot Hint
The camera position and angle of view by necessity dictate the background.
controlling picture backgrounds

Walkers in Granada, Spain 2014

This pair of pictures demonstrates differing vision and intent on behalf of the photographer. The first, is a romantic predetermined de-focussing to record shapes, colour – an interpretation. The second intent is descriptive reality, a very specific leading of the eye to a couple who are easily identifiable.

controlling picture backgrounds
The 4 things you need to know about controlling picture backgrounds

This approach to controlling backgrounds will be helpful in making the right decisions whether to: press the button and take the picture; find a new viewpoint or walk on by.

1) Is this particular background necessary to help make an effective picture with emotional impact?

2) Is there a more appropriate background from a different viewpoint of the same subject?

3) If the background is integral to the picture, how much depth of field is required to draw the foreground and background together?

4) Is it possible to blur the background with Depth of Field to remove distractions, if required?

Embedding Skill Exercise – Controlling picture backgrounds

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 Hints

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.


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

How to fine-tune a viewpoint

Quite often the first viewpoint you choose may not be the best one for the most effective and expressive picture. Having found the optimum viewpoint (one among many possibilities to you), it will usually need fine tuning. Very often a small change in the position of the camera from left to right, up or down can have a quite dramatic influence the effectiveness of the picture. One of the aims of fine tuning is to make life easier in the post-processing by looking at the edges and corners of the pictures to ensure there are no hidden gremlins waiting to be cropped out later in the process.


Hot Hint
Photography is the art of leaving things out, it is a subtractive composition.
ABC of CameraWork Core Content 



Understanding the reason for taking a picture and sharing it with a viewer



“Composition is the art of leaving things out”

Andy Beel FRPS


Depth of Field

Depth of field is a tool for seeing, feeling and presenting an expressive picture

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