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6 Ways Effective Backgrounds Improve Photography

May 25, 2014 by Christina Harman

Mastering the art of effective backgrounds is one of the fastest ways to improve your photography.

For better or worse, the background can have a major impact on the composition of a photo. Photos with distracting backgrounds tend to look cluttered and amateur, while intentional backgrounds instantly improve the entire composition, and add meaning and depth to a photo.

It’s easy to overlook the background and forget that it is a vital and prominent part of your photo, but taking the time to pay attention to the details in the background can open the door for new photographic opportunities; and will help you to take your photography to the next level.

Set the Stage

The background is what sets the stage for your entire composition.

An effective background will add to the story, providing valuable information about your setting, and helping to dramatically enhance your photo. You should focus on the background as much as you do the subject. After all, the background is part of your picture, and is often what will make the difference between a snapshot and a powerful composition.

Backgrounds should be used to highlight your subject in a context that helps them to stand out, without being overwhelming. Fortunately, finding the right background for your images isn’t hard, with a bit of practice you will soon be adept at judging backgrounds, and identifying backgrounds that work with the composition at hand.

Here are a few tips and techniques that can help you to create amazing photos with powerful backgrounds – every time.

  1. Keep it Simple for a Powerful Composition

    Keep it Simple for a Powerful Composition
    photo by Pat David
    Objects in the background often compete with the subject for attention. In most cases, this produces a less-than-desirable effect. If you find that your background is too busy, try moving you subject in front of a plain wall, the sky, or something equally simple. A background that is simple and unobtrusive will help to draw the focus onto your subject, and will highlight their emotions, features, and expressions.

  2. Fill the Frame

    Fill the Frame
    photo by TumblingRun
    Sometimes, filling the entire frame with your subject is the best way to work with your background. A close up of your subject can often help you avoid any unnecessary and distracting background elements. Just make sure the subject you are shooting will work well with this technique and that you aren’t cropping out a valuable part of your picture.

  3. Use Lines to Convey a Sense of Depth

    Use Lines to Convey a Sense of Depth
    photo by Nat Wilson
    Effective compositions often use lines to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject. Background lines can also be used to create a sense of movement in your images, or to convey a sense of distance or depth. Converging lines that disappear into the distance are a great example of lines that help to draw the viewer into the image, while adding a sense of depth. Just take care to avoid unintentional and intrusive background lines. Avoid horizon lines or telephone lines that run directly behind your subject’s head, and make sure there are no competing lines running in different directions. Distracting lines will only confuse the scene at hand and will serve as a distraction.

  4. Use Contrasting Backgrounds

    Use Contrasting Backgrounds
    photo by Simon & His Camera
    Contrasting backgrounds are a great way to add drama and excitement to your image, and are a great way to draw the focus onto your subject. When most people think of contrast, they think of black and white, but while tonal contrast is easier to spot in black and white imagery, there is plenty of tonal contrast in color as well. When composing your images, look for backgrounds that contain varying shades and tones, and use colors that contrast with your subject to offset your subject and add visual interest to your photos.

  5. Blur the Background

    Blur the Background
    photo by Neal Fowler
    One of the best ways to handle a distracting background is to blur it. The easiest way to throw the background out of focus, is to adjust your depth of field by using a wide aperture, and leaving some distance between your subject and the background – the more distance you leave, the more blur there will be. Try starting with an aperture of about f/18 and working your way down, once you reach f/4 you should notice your background starting to blur. Look out for opportunities to use a wide aperture to create background bokeh, a beautiful background element for your compositions.

  6. Use the Background to Tell Your Story

    Use the Background to Tell Your Story
    photo by theilr
    Powerful photos always tell a story. Backgrounds can be an excellent way to enhance your images, and an effective way to help you tell your story. Whether you are outside in a scenic location, at a busy market, or a dimly lit street corner, including the background as part of your composition can help to set the scene and give your viewers a glimpse into the context of your photo.

While backgrounds are an often-overlooked part of photography, paying attention to the background and the effect that it has on your composition will help you to create visually powerful images. It’s amazing how simply shifting your position or moving your subject slightly to the left can entirely change the background, and the resulting composition of the photo.

Keep it simple, make it bright, or zoom in and ignore it altogether, whatever your background is, just make sure it’s intentional.

By keeping an eye out for details in the background, and learning using them effectively, you will be on your way towards creating powerful and visually rich compositions.

Christina Harman

About the author: Christina Harman

Christina is a part time blogger and full time photography enthusiast living in Southeast Alaska. She enjoys travel photography and has taken pictures in countries such as Mexico, England, France, and China. She likes sunny days, new lenses and drinking good coffee. You can visit her at My Falling Leaves or on Google+.