What’s in Your Background?

The simple act of paying more attention to what’s in the background every time you hold a camera up to your face can improve your photography dramatically.

This applies regardless of whether you’re using a point-and-shoot camera or a digital single lens reflex camera.

What doesn’t add to your subject in the picture, detracts from your subject.

1.Focus on Your Subject, Study the Background then Release the Shutter

After you meter the scene, consider what is important and choose your lens.

The final step before taking the picture requires you to scrutinize your viewfinder.

If it’s cluttered and busy then the simple fix is…

2. Move Your Subject

If it’s something you can move easily, like a person in a portrait, a few feet can make a world of a difference.

In my example with the 2 pictures on the right, I kept the camera settings the same intentionally.

The only difference between the pictures is how far my model Joe is from the brick wall.

I used the same lens and kept my camera-to-subject distance  about the same.

Exposure ISO 200 1/200 sec f2.8 Both taken with a 50 mm lens. In the bottom picture, I kept the camera distance to Joe about the same. But I moved Joe about 6 feet away from the brick wall. Notice how you can’t tell what kind of background it is now?


If your subject is something other than a person, maybe an inanimate object that is huge and heavy, then try these other suggestions…

3.Change Your Camera Position/Viewpoint

Speaking as a short person, I find myself always looking around for something high to stand on.

If you’re a photographer, it’s infinitely more advantageous to be tall.

You can easily bend and get lower, not so, if you’re short.

Furthermore if you’re tall, say over 6 feet, your change in camera position is very dramatic from being on your belly, kneeling, standing upright and holding the camera with your hands extended over your head.

Newspaper photographers in the US call this a Hail Mary. You’re guessing and hoping for the best and shooting over your head without composing looking in the viewfinder.

Remember camera position is not just about height relative to your subject, but also from which direction to take the picture.

I covered this in an earlier post when I wrote about choosing which lens to use.

If that still doesn’t work out, it may be time to use a different lens if you have that option

4.Use a Longer Focal Length to Blur Backgrounds

Assuming you’re strictly working with available light, the longest focal length lens you can handhold without camera shake is the next option to try.

The longer the focal length the shallower the depth-of-field.

5.Place Your Subjects in front of Open Spaces

This next suggestion is quite easy to demonstrate.

This one was mentioned in #1.

The further you move your subject from a distracting background or wall, the more the subject will stand out.

6.Get Closer to Your Subject

jerry_by_yeseniaWhen you make the subject bigger by getting closer, you are filling the frame, so there’s less background.

In a portrait situation, getting close to the point of cropping off the top of the head of your subjects can make the eyes the focus of your picture.

Suggestions #7 and #8 requires a little more knowledge and  equipment like flash units which you can trigger remotely.

7.Light just Your Subject

If you have access to flash units and capability to trigger them remotely, this is a great way to minimize or remove distractions.

The picture of these cyclists was made outdoors in broad daylight at the end of a cul-de-sac.

I had to work around my subjects’ schedule which turned out to be the worst possible time of the day to make a picture, near noon.

I overpowered the available light using my flash units.

LightingSetupI set my shutter speed to 1/250 sec (highest sync speed) and set my flash units to give me an output for f22.

To put out f22 at ISO 100 meant the flash units had to be quite close to the subjects.

I used 2 flash units. One on the left to light the coach who is in the foreground.

The other is a bare bulb flash, radiating light outwards in all directions positioned right behind the coach’s head out of view of the camera.

Fortunately it wasn’t sunny. The result is a picture that looks like it was done in a studio.

Here are 2 more examples of how lighting a scene can de-emphasis the background.

In downtown Riverside, I photographed this ground breaking ceremony at UC Riverside’s Museum of Photography using my studio strobes triggered by radio remotes.

Notice how dramatic the picture looks with the use of flash compared to just available light.

ISO 200 1/60 sec f2.8


ISO 200 1/60 sec f5.6. My 2 flashes gave me an exposure of f5.6. As with the example above of the where I suggested you move your subject to a better location, since my subject is lit and is now the lightest part of the picture, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the shovels and the speakers in the foreground.

8.Fill flash with Your Highest Sync Speed

Owners of those proprietary speedlites from Canon, Nikon and others have the capability to synchronize their flash units at any shutter speed.

If you don’t have one of these expensive flash units, you are restricted to your highest sync speed for your shutter usually  1/250 sec.

In those instances, when shooting outdoors, lower your ISO so that you are shooting with your highest sync speed so that you are using wide apertures.

Seasoned Apples Smell Nutty to Blushing Bachelors  or  “Set Aperture to Small Number to Blur Background” is the reason.

If your camera is set at its lowest ISO, then you might have to consider using a neutral density filter to further cut down the light so that you will be shooting with a wider aperture.

Remember your flash doesn’t have to live on top of your camera’s hotshoe. It can survive off-camera via a long sync cord. That gives your pictures a different look.

9.Use Post Production (Photoshop)

I intentionally left this one for last because it’s my least favorite option.

Briefly, you use one of the selection tools in Photoshop to select your subject. (In the video clip, I already saved the selection, so I just chose Select>Load Selection.

Then under Select, I chose Inverse followed by Filter>Blur> Gaussian Blur command and dialed in the amount of blur I wanted.

When I was done I just chose View>Extras to hide the selection.

It’s not cheating, but it sure is unnecessary if you took the picture properly to begin with.
Here’s the video on how to Fake a Shallow Depth-of-field..

6 thoughts on “What’s in Your Background?”

  1. Hello Michael,
    Thank you for your kindness and for reading my blog. It looks like you’re reading the right materials. There are lots of blogs out there and various niches. I’m just keeping it real.

    I love your picture of Katrina the cat. Reminds me of my own Tofu.

  2. Pete,
    All great points. I’m still a beginner in regards to flash and point #7 is very helpful. I’m also reading Joe mcNally’s book on using multiple, small flashes, the hot-shoe diaries.

    By the way, your site is very practical and helpful.

    Thanks, Michael

  3. Mike,
    Exposure for ISO 100 at noon here in Southern California where I am when the sun is out is typically 1/250 sec @ f11. I say typical but it’s close.

    I set up my Nikon Speedlite to give me f22 on manual by figuring out the Guide Number. The Lumedyne bare bulb flash that’s hidden behind the coach’s head is also giving out the same amount of light.

    So with my camera set at 1/250 sec @ f22, it’s 2-stops brighter than the ambient light. As I recall when I took that picture it was overcast, so it made the parts of the picture not lit by the flash units even darker–giving me the studio lit look.

    The diagram software is nothing more than a multi-layered photoshop document file that photographer Kevin Kertz has so generously shared from his website.

    Please note, Kevin has specified the diagram is not to be used for commercial purposes. From his homepage, look for the link “Download Lighting Setup file” in the bottom.

  4. Peter,

    Yes, I was referring to the shot of the cyclists and the diagram is helpful. I’m feeling dense this week because it still doesn’t make complete sense how you get a black (severely underexposed) background in the middle of the day outside. You indicated a 1/250 synch with the flashes set for f22 @ ISO 100. What was the camera exposure set to? Seems like ISO 100, 1/250, and f22 would still capture some of the background under midday lighting.

    On a totally unrelated note… What software do you use for your diagrams?

  5. Mike,
    I added a diagram to the post. Hopefully it gives you a better idea of what I did with the cyclist. I’m assuming that’s the one you had questions with.

    Post back if that’s not the case & I’ll elaborate further.

  6. Peter,

    Could you please go into more detail on #7. This sounds like a useful technique but I’m not quite sure how you pulled it off.



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