Backgrounds are an important part of any image. They set the context, and can make a dull image interesting. Most of us are constantly in search of a background with character, feeling it will add something extra to shot. And it does, but sometimes it does so at the expense of what’s truly important. Here are 5 myths about backgrounds and photography.
1. Backgrounds should have a lot of interesting details
In some cases it’s nice to have a background you can really get into. I like to explore a photo as much as anyone else. You just need to be careful about the fine line between an interesting background and one that distracts. Some backgrounds have so much detail that it overpowers the shot and draws attention away from your subject.
The key is to find a background with a few smaller points of interest. Think of distant mountains, cornfields stretching on to infinity, and the like. As soon as your background starts to look like your subject, it more or less becomes the subject of the photo. Always ask yourself if this is happening before you press the shutter.
2. Landmarks make good backgrounds
Some of them do, and some of them don’t. It really depends on how you use them. If you are far enough away from them to make them less distracting, they can add a nice touch. If you’re really close, the landmark turns into the subject of the photo. That’s not always a bad thing - sometimes you just want to show people you were actually there. In that case, be sure to take a few other photos without the landmark.
Whenever I’m traveling, I don’t necessarily think of getting the most iconic landmarks in my photos. If it happens, great. But if not, the places have their own culture to them. Eventually, it will come out, no matter what I choose to use as the background.
3. The background needs to be in focus
Sometimes I find the background I’m shooting to be far too distracting. In that case, it’s simply better to not have a background. That’s when I open up my aperture (use a small F-number) and let loose. At these lower f-numbers, the aperture effectively blurs out the background so you see only your subject. It’s a fantastic way to get rid of a background that’s just not working. I use it all the time.
There are other ways to get the background out of focus. You can have your subject stand very far away from elements in the background. The further the background is from your subject, the more out of focus it will be. I suppose you could call this the poor man’s wide aperture setting. It achieves the same effect with none of the expensive equipment.
4. You need to use the background you’re given
I know a few people who bring their own backgrounds with them. If you aren’t that enterprising, consider setting up a photo studio in one of your spare rooms. It doesn’t cost that much to get started, and you can always add to your setup bit by bit. When a background doesn’t work, your best bet is to move somewhere else, find a different angle, or create your own. You don’t have to accept a distracting background just because it’s the only one there.
5. Sunsets make a good background
They do so long as you remember to use your flash to illuminate your subjects. Sunsets backlight your subject. To solve this problem, you need to shine light on your subject’s front side to even things out.
The best light happens while the sun is going down, so why not use that light to create a very natural looking portrait? During a sunset, I like to do a total 180 and shoot my subjects with that nice orange glow. The background might not be as interesting, but that’s not always the point. Sometimes the better shots can be found when you’re willing to look away from the obvious.
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