Backgrounds and Backdrops Outside The Studio

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By Steve Russell

Last week, on the subject of backgrounds and backdrops, I focused on the studio environment; a place where the photographer is in control. I thought it would be good to complement that article with one where the photographer has less control; outside the studio. In doing so I’ve decided to list a number of things to look for and think about when photographing outside the studio.

Sometimes it’s easy to focus so much on the subject that you forget to visually survey the background and decide if you want it to be part of the photo. Below are some of the things I’ve seen in photos or experienced myself that diminish the quality of the photo.

Household clutter – I’ve seen photos where there were dirty clothes on the floor, dirty dishes on the kitchen counter and other day-to-day household clutter. If you’re shooting indoors, make sure the area you’re shooting in is neat and clean. Otherwise, when someone else looks at the photo the first thing they’ll see is the clutter, not the subject.

Background too busy – Whether indoors or outdoors, when shooting a subject in front of a busy background, the viewer’s eye is drawn away from the subject to all the objects, colors or activities in the background. Over the years, I’ve seen photos where it was even difficult to tell what the subject was. Okay, over the years I’ve taken some of those photos.

Background is too dramatic – It is possible to have a background that is so dramatic that the viewer wonders why there’s a person in the way when the photographer was actually photographing the person and not the background. There are places in Seattle, WA that afford some spectacular views of Mt. Rainier on a clear day. There’s a little park on the top of Queen Anne hill in Seattle where on a clear day I used to sit and watch Mt. Rainer as the sunset turned the snow covered mountain from white, to pink to purple. Breathtaking.

One day I arrived there to watch the mountain at sunset and observed someone with a camera photographing a bride, dressed in her gown, and using Mt. Rainier as a backdrop. I think I understand what the photographer was trying to do, but I would be willing to bet that a few years later if the bride was showing the photos to some friends or family members that weren’t from the Seattle area, the first comment they might make is, “Wow! What an awesome mountain. Where is it?”

Unexpected people or things in the background of the photo – A few years back I was photographing a fully restored 1929 Duesenberg J automobile. I also had two people in period dress that were going to pose with the car. I had these great creative thoughts about the photos and how I was going to finish them in sepia and make the resulting photos look old and worn. I painstakingly selected the spot and angle to make sure there wasn’t anything modern in the background. I probably took 20-25 photos. I was really excited until I saw the results. Across the sky in all of the photos were two jet contrails. In today’s digital age with Photoshop this is fairly easy to correct. With the film I was using, not so much.

When you’re photographing outside the studio keep these things in mind:

• Study the background before you start shooting. Make sure there’s nothing in the background that you don’t want. Avoid surprises after the shoot.

• Select a background that enhances the photo not detract from it.

• In the studio I can move the lights around to get the lighting I want. If you’re shooting outdoors you can’t move the sun around. This means that you may have to move the subject after you thought you were set to shoot so you can get the lighting you need or want. When you do this make sure you start over with the background.

• Remember that if the sky is in the shot, it’s part of the background.

• Once you’ve selected the location where you’re satisfied with the background and have started shooting, look at your background from time to time to make sure nothing has changed.

If you keep these tips in mind when shooting you’ll produce more and better photographs and fewer snapshots.

By now you may be wondering where are the photos that are usually included with the articles on Beyond Megapixels. There are two reasons there are none with this article.

1. I’ve taken a number of photos over the years that violate everything in this article. Where do you think I got all the ideas? However, when I do screw up a photo this way I delete it. There’s no reason to keep it around although I could have used some of them here.

2. While I could find a lot of photos on Flick to illustrate the points I was trying to make, I won’t use someone else’s photo to show what not to do.

One last tip, don’t get so anxious about the background that you miss the photo you wanted to take.

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  • Anon

    Don’t be so quick to delete… sometimes, you can crop out some parts of the distracting background and still have the main image as the focus.
    Other times, those are the only photos taken of an event or place that you may not visit anytime soon…sure, they may never hang in a gallery, but you can still hang on to them.

  • Rick

    Sometimes the background is totally out of your control because the subject is tied to a specific location.  The photographer can still take control of the background to a certain degree by choosing a very quick lens and shooting with the aperture wide open, thus bluring the distractions into a pleasing background.