Composition – Background

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By Steve Russell.

Because of one of my personal rules this article won’t have many photos for illustrations. I can find plenty to illustrate various points, but in using them I run the risk of criticizing someone else’s photos without their permission. While I have one I’m going to use, you’ll have to use your imagination or look at some of your own photos to provide a visual representation.

Chances are we’ve all seen (or taken) photos where the background detracted the viewer’s attention from the subject. You know the kind, the photo with mom, dad and the two little children at the beach. A friend, relative or maybe even an innocent passerby had a camera thrust into their hand with the request to please take a photo of the four family members. The person smiled, said sure, told the family to say cheese, snapped a photo, returned the camera and fled the scene. After returning home the photos were downloaded to the computer and much to everyone’s surprise the much anticipated photo of the four family members also had in the background two dogs making puppies.

Here are a few of the more common background errors and some suggestions for avoiding them.

Extra Appendages – You go to a family reunion and are very happy to see your Uncle Asa and Aunt Gertrude. They’ve always been your favorite aunt and uncle but you haven’t seen them for over twenty years. You know, sometimes life gets in the way. You’re a little late in arriving at the event and Asa and Gertrude are getting ready to leave to watch their grandson play in a T-ball game. Greetings, hugs, promises to visit and you grab your camera to take a photo of them. Time passes, you eat too many hamburgers, eat too much potato salad and drink way too many beers. You wake up the next morning with barely enough time to rush to the airport and catch your flight home. A couple of weeks later you finally get around to downloading all your photos and discover that the only one you have of Asa and Gertrude, Uncle Asa has a tree “growing” out of his head.

Background Doesn’t Go With The Subject – When I mean that things don’t go together, I’m talking about things that are so different in time period or context that the juxtaposition of the two (or more) in a single photo is jarring to the viewer. The photo above of the commanding officer of the Horse Cavalry Detachment of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division is designed to depict the cavalry of the late post-Civil War American West. They didn’t have any cars and pickups back then. Nice shot of the young captain and all four of the horses hooves off the ground but rendered a travelogue snapshot by the background.

Background Busy or Cluttered – This is like the beach shot where there are so many people it’s difficult for the viewer to determine what the subject is supposed to be. It’s the photo of your daughter in her college dorm room with so much junk, books, papers and dirty clothes all over the room that the subject gets lost in the image and the viewer is focusing on the clutter. This becomes especially problematic when a friend posts it on Facebook and mother sees the photo.

Unintended Items in the Photo – This is like the dogs I mentioned at the beginning of the article, but it can also occur when the photographer is trying to do everything right. For example, shooting at the “golden hour” and you have this great subject. You’ve been waiting for the light to be just right to capture the image. When you download the image it’s everything you’d hoped it would be except for one thing. Your shadow on the ground almost dominates the image; at least it does in your eyes.

Almost all of these photography “sins” can be corrected. Photoshop and other photo editing software are powerful tools. However, I’m not going to use Photoshop to clean my daughter’s room. I can address that issue more effectively using other methods. But the best way to correct all these “sins” is to pay attention. Look at and visualize the photo before you ever raise your camera. Is Uncle Asa standing in front of a tree? If so, step to your right or left a couple of feet and the problem is solved. However, you have to look at the entire photo first to make these corrections.

I can fix the photo of the cavalry officer and will eventually but it’ll take time. Had I been paying closer attention, I could have moved to the other end of the field and taken the photograph when he was riding the other direction. There would have been a lot less background clutter had I done so and the parking lot and power lines would have been completely absent.

When you’re photographing people, look for a blank wall or a pleasing background and position your subject(s) in front of that. Most people you’re photographing will be more than happy to move especially if you tell them why.

I once saw a photo of a bride and groom shortly after their wedding on the beach. Walking along the beach behind them was an overweight older couple, she wearing a bikini and he wearing a speedo. Now, I have no idea why the photographer kept and shared the photo instead of deleting it. Avoid this result as the photographer by taking one last look at the scene just before you snap the photo. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of post processing to make the photo pleasing is always a good thing.

If you have seen any photos that were “ruined” by the background describe them for us in the comments section.

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