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Beyond your subject: Mastering the background

beginners composition creative technique tips Feb 21, 2024

In photography, what's behind your main subject – the background – can play a large role in your final image. It’s easy to focus just on what you're taking a picture of, but the background matters too. Here's a straightforward guide on making sure the background helps your photos stand out.


Why the Background is Important

  •  Keep It Simple: A busy background can take away from your main subject. Try to use backgrounds that are simple and don't have too much going on. This means choosing settings where your subject doesn't get lost among everything else.
  •  Blur It Out: You can make your subject the star by blurring the background. This is done by using a setting on your camera that makes the aperture wider (a lower “f-stop” number). This trick is great for portraits and easier to achieve with a longer focal length lens (telephoto).
  •  Avoid Odd Objects: Ever seen a photo where it looks like there’s a tree growing out of someone's head? A little shift in where you stand or where your subject stands can fix that. It’s all about noticing what’s behind your subject.

Blur the background by using a long focal length and wide aperture. 

Making Your Background Work for You

  •  Colour Coordination: Colours can make or break a photo. Use backgrounds with colours that make your subject pop. A bit of colour theory can help here – opposite colours on the colour wheel grab attention.
  •  Storytelling Backgrounds: Backgrounds can tell a story. Think about what the setting adds to your photo. Is it adding to the story you're trying to tell? Does it show your subject in context, or maybe tell a different story to the one that viewers would expect to see?
  •  Textures and Patterns: A wall with an interesting texture or pattern can add depth to your photo. Just make sure it doesn’t steal the show from your subject.

Experiment with different backgrounds to change the mood of the final photo.

Some Clever Background Tricks

  •  Use of Space: How much space your subject takes up, and the space around it (called negative space), can make a photo feel more dramatic.
  •  Reflections: Reflective surfaces can create cool, unique backgrounds. Think mirrors, water, or glass windows for something different.


Tips for Every Scene

  •  Outdoors: Nature or cityscapes can be great, but remember, things move and change, like clouds or people walking by.
  •  Indoors: You can control your background more by using a plain sheet or curtain. Watch how light affects it, including any shadows.


Editing Your Backgrounds

  •  Touching Up: Sometimes, you can’t get the background right on the spot. That’s where editing software comes in, letting you tweak or even change the background after you’ve taken the picture.


Even if it's out of focus, the background can provide context to the subject.

Getting Composition Right

  •  Balanced Photos: Using the rule of thirds (imagine your image divided into nine equal parts) can help place your subject in a way that looks good with the background.
  •  Leading Lines: Lines in your background can guide the viewer’s eye to your subject, whether it’s a path, a row of trees, or architectural features.

 Backgrounds can be edited, or completely changed in post-production, although it's best to get it right in camera if at all possible.

Remember, the background is a big part of what makes a photo work - and they can range from plain and simple to intricate and complex. It’s not just about pointing and shooting; it’s about seeing how everything in your frame works together. With a bit of thought and creativity, you can use backgrounds to make your photos truly special. Every detail in your photo has a role, and getting it right can turn a good photo into a great one.


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