Have you ever snapped what seemed like a great picture only to discover that there was something in the background that slaughtered your otherwise perfect shot? Maybe it was a person wearing bright colors doing something incredibly boring, like feeding a parking meter. Maybe it was a photobomb, and not the good kind, either. And then there's those non-animate background distractions: tree branches that seem to grow right out of your subject's head, or signs directing the whole neighborhood and everyone who sees your photo to the nearest laundromat.
Yes, backgrounds are important. And to the extent that they can actually turn a great shot into something terrible, they can sometimes be even more important than your subject.
[ Top image Skyline Drive (7) - Overlook by Flickr user D.Clow - Maryland]
First, Be Aware of your Background
Every single beginning photographer has at one point or another neglected to notice an ugly background. It's easy to get so caught up in that intriguing or beautiful or adorable subject that you forget there are other things in your shot, too. Just think of background awareness as one of your camera's settings: you wouldn't take a shot without adjusting your shutter speed and/or aperture, so don't take a shot without first taking inventory of your surroundings and deciding what you want to include and/or exclude from your image. Including this simple step amongst those things that you already do routinely just before you raise that camera will go a long way towards improving your photography.
Frame your subject AND your background
When you take inventory of your surroundings, you will undoubtedly find one or two things there you don't want to include in your image. Even the Grand Canyon has those distastefully-dressed tourists roaming around, spoiling all that unspoiled beauty (although you can use a photographic trick to erase them). Once you are aware of all the things that might mess up your image, set up your shot and see which one of those distractions are sharing space with your subject. See if you can get rid of those distractions by adjusting the angle of your camera, or by taking a few steps to the right or left. Sometimes you can orient yourself so the distracting object is behind your subject. Some objects you can just pick up and move (though probably not the distastefully-dressed tourists). Litter is a good example, both man-made and natural. You can move that dead branch out of the frame, or you can do a little good-Samaritan work and pick up the Big-Gulp cup that that distastefully-dressed tourist left sitting on the ground.
Sometimes the sky makes a great background and an excellent way to angle out distractions.Daisy blue 1 by Flickr user Reini68
If it's not possible to angle the distractions out of the frame, or to physically remove them, you might want to consider changing locations altogether. The Grand Canyon is huge, and the chances are pretty good that you can find a better spot there. But even at less massive locations, you should be able to wander around until you find a spot that is free from distractions.
Sometimes photography is all about patience. You wait for the right light, you wait for the right subject, and you wait for the right moment. You may also need to wait for the right background. If you really want to capture a shot from that particular location and you can't angle those tourists, dogs or other moving distractions out of the shot, simply wait them out. Eventually tourists get tired of looking at one attraction and then they move on to the next. Eventually that dog finds another place to mark as his own. In many cases, a little bit of patience will reward you with some distraction-free shots.
Mark, Stranger 97 / 100 by Flickr user Steffen Hi
Ask yourself if you need to have anything in the background at all. If you have a very strong subject, chances are the answer to that question will be "no." Look for simple backgrounds such as a wall, a field, or the side of a building. If your subject is small you could even try placing a piece of foam core (or in a pinch, your jacket) behind your subject at enough of a distance that it will fall out of focus when in portrait mode (ie large apertures).
For stubborn distractions - or inanimate ones - remember that there are technical solutions to those background problems, too. In many cases you can just crop out the distractions. Try zooming in on your subject and filling the frame. Or simply step in a little closer.
A nearby root distracts the viewer from the subjectWolf portrait 4 by Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar
Here, the background has been blurred by a larger aperture and more distant background.Another wolf portrait by Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar
Sometimes there just isn't anything you can do about those background uglies, and for whatever reason you may not be willing to change your location. In these cases you can change the aperture - the wider the aperture, the more blurry your background.
While it may not completely solve your problem, the mere fact that your background isn't in focus will mean that your viewer's eye won't waste any effort trying to figure out what is there. When relying on this technique, remember that the blurrier the better - partially blurred subjects that are still identifiable will still create an unwanted distraction. What you want is for that background to fall off into a range of non-descript blobs. Also keep in mind that bright colors may be distracting no matter how blurry they are, so it's best to avoid bright colors rather than simply try to blur them out.
To help get that background to blur, remember that your subject shouldn't be standing too close to whatever is behind them. Sometimes it can be a big improvement to move your subject away from that distracting element. This will help your large aperture work even more effectively to blur out that ugly background.
But what if you couldn't get that distracting thing out of the background, and you had to shoot or else miss a great shot? Or what if you simply weren't paying attention, and that great shot got photobombed? Depending on your skill in post processing, some distractions can be removed after the fact. It could be as simple as just cropping out the distracting element, or you may need to master that cloning tool. You can even increase the saturation on your subject itself to make it stand out more. With the right image and enough skill, you could also completely replace a background with something less distracting, or you can simply make it darker so that the distractions are less obvious.
Of course, that's not an ideal solution. There's a lot of skill needed to remove an unwanted object using Photoshop Elements, and it takes heaps of time. It is always far better to keep the uglies out of the background to begin with. Awareness is key, and the first step towards banishing distracting backgrounds. Just make sure you're always aware of your surroundings, and those bad backgrounds in your portfolio will vanish like bored tourists.
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