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Backgrounds in Image Composition

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If the background doesn’t work together with your main subject, you won’t have a good picture.

Mary Ellen Mark.

 As a photographer, it is important to me and I hope that it is important to you to constantly be improving your craft. Making good images is not that easy, particularly when you may have little or no control over the elements in the image.  In the last few weeks, I have seen a number of images posted on critique forums, where the image itself, in terms of the main subject was quite good, but the other components of the image, in particular, the background, adversely affected the overall composition. I thought it might be useful to discuss this aspect of composition, in particular, the role that the background plays in composing a pleasing image.  Because as photographers, we are often concentrating intently on the subject of our image, whether it is a person, a flower, an animal or bird, or some aspect of the local architecture or a landscape, it is also very important to be conscious of the role that the background plays in making a successful image.  The background can often make or break a good image.

Components of an Image

In its basic composition, an image has two main aspects to it – the content, the things or elements that are actually in the image and the arrangement of these elements or the composition of the image – how the elements are put together relative to one another.  Determining the content of an image may sound like a simple thing to do, but it is not always simple.  A photographer has to think not only about what he wants to include in the image, but often, more importantly, what he wants to leave out.  Depending on the image, this often means looking at the three areas in the image and trying to decide what to put in the foreground, the middle ground and the background.

The composition of an image involves the use of what are often referred to as design elements which are meant to be assembled using rules of composition.  Rules such as the rule of thirds, the rule of odd numbers (Google it) and the less is more concept.  As well, there are design elements such as lines – horizontal, vertical, diagonal and curved – and how to use them to create a pleasing composition.  Then there is the use of shapes and forms, and negative space in composing your image, and various rules or guidelines exist on how to utilize these in creating a well-composed image.  For the reader interested in pursuing the various aspects of composition, I would refer you to  a series of three web articles by Ron Bigelow – Composition.  The first page has the link to the next one at the bottom of the page.  The link to the third page is at the bottom of the second page.  As well, there are a number of links to various aspects of composition here – Composition Links.  Bryan Peterson has also written a good introduction to the subject of composition in photography – Learning to See.  You can also Google any topic and find numerous links to web pages discussing aspects of image composition.

The Simplicity Concept and Backgrounds

There is an old principle, often referred to as the KISS principle – Keep It Simple and Straightforward – that can be applied to composing an image. (The reader may have seen other interpretations of the these four letters, this is the one I prefer.)  This comes back to something I noted earlier – you have to decide not only what you want to include in the image, but also what you want to leave out.  This is not always an easy task.  Sometimes, you have to not take an image if you can’t leave out what you want to.  This decision – in or out – applies to backgrounds as well as the primary subject or, subjects in an image.  A cluttered background invariably detracts from the main subject of the picture.  One question that you have to ask yourself when composing an image is – “What else is in the picture that a viewer will see?”  A viewer’s eyes almost invariably goes to the brightest, or most colourful, element in an image, whether or not it is in focus and then it moves to those elements of the image that are in focus.  So if you have a bright red flower in the background that is out of focus, the viewer’s eyes will often go there before it gets to the actual subject in the image.

Some Examples for Consideration

To illustrate some of the situations that you, or I, may find ourselves in consider the following example that I have taken from some of my images.  These are

Image 1

Image 1

not meant as good examples of photographic images, rather they were chosen from my collection as examples of what can happen and some ideas on how to correct or avoid getting yourself into these situations.  For example, consider image 1 of a butterfly.  The butterfly is almost lost in the red flowers and in fact the viewer’s eye probably wanders to the red flower on the right.  Even with some judicious cropping, it is probably not possible to turn this into a decent image.  Looking at image 2,

Image 2

Image 2

you can see how waiting for the butterfly to land on a surface with a less conflicting or distracting background, the image is, hopefully, improved.  Yes I know this is not the same butterfly, but it serves to illustrate the point.

Looking at image 3,

Image 3

Image 3

Image 4

Image 4

I would ask you where is the first place your eye goes to.  I will bet you that it is the shiny roof on the building in the background.  Is this what I was looking for – probably not.  The same type of question holds true for image 4, where the swallow is sitting on a fence with a large vertical object going right through his body – not good.  In both cases, a slight shift to the right or left in my position would most likely have produced a better image.

Images 5 and 6

Image 5

Image 5

Image 6

Image 6

illustrate another background/foreground problem (I know I diverge slightly).  In image 5, the egret is landing in a tree and my view was partially obstructed by a number of branches together with the fact that the branches immediately behind the bird (its background) also presents a confusing array of lines to divert the viewer’s attention away from the subject.  Image 6 is a better shot of the bird as I waited for it to move to a different location before capturing this image.  Yes, it still looks like it is being skewered by the tree branch, but it is a bit of an improvement over image 5 and could be fixed very easily in post-processing.

Images 7 and 8 illustrate a slightly similar point.  In image 7, there is an egret in a nest to the upper left of the heron, my main subject.  Judicious cropping of the image produced a better shot of the heron with no “background” distraction.

Image 7

Image 7

Image 8

Image 8

I could go one with more examples, but candidly, I had a hard time finding examples in my own imagery to illustrate this issue of my blog.  I am not bragging, just pointing out that once the whole concept of a distracting background has been noted to you in your images, as it was to me a number of years ago, you become much more conscious of what the background is all about.

Things to be aware of.

There are a number of things to watch out for and avoid if your backgrounds are to be a pleasing part of your images composition:

Protruding things – whether your subject is human, animal, or bird, watch for things protruding out of the tops of heads, and for things cutting off or running through body parts. I call these things sprouts, because they seem to be sprouting from the bodies of you subject.

Busy backgrounds – elements such as lines and shapes in the background should not compete with those in your main subject.  For example, horizontal lines in the background that conflict with vertical lines in your subject.

Compositional clashes – avoid clashing colours, or areas of brightly contrasting material, between your background and your subject.  Similarly, in pictures that are mostly of a light coloured nature, watch for very dark areas in the background.

Clutter – sometimes there are just so many different things in the background that the draw the viewer’s eye away from the subject.  Watch for other things in your image that will take the focus away from your subject.

There may be other things to watch for, but I think these cover the majority of potential problems that you can create when you are not aware of what is happening in your image background.

Taking control of your background

You can take control of your background in a number of ways, but the main aspect is to be aware of what is in the background of your image.  Look before you press the shutter and check for all the things that have been mentioned previously.  Some things that you can do:

Blur the background – adjust the aperture on your camera so that the background is out of focus.

Actively check for contrasts – make sure there are no darker or brighter areas in the background that will draw the viewer’s eye away from your main subject.

Move your subject or yourself – if you are shooting people, sometimes you may have to move them to remove distracting elements from the background.  Alternatively, if this is not possible, then you may be able to move yourself.

Fill the frame – put as much of your subject as is compositionally effective in the frame.  You may have to move closer, or, if you are using a zoom lens, zoom in on your subject.

Post-processing – while I am not a fan of fixing it in Photoshop, sometimes you do not have a choice, you have to grab the shot at the moment in time that it happens regardless of the background.  In this case, there are a variety of alternatives to dealing with adverse backgrounds in software.  One that immediately comes to mind is the Content Aware Fill functionality in Photoshop.  While it is not a panacea for all that ails an image, it can be quite useful in fixing up ailing backgrounds.  As well, there is software available that will blur the background for you.

Improving you imagery, often can involve something as easy as improving your backgrounds.  This is really a very easy thing to do.  Simply be aware of the things in the background of your images.


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