Those of you who have suffered through one of my insufferable workshops will remember me going on and on about background. Usually its during a critique I bellow “background, background, background,” making my point by pointing out bright spots or other distracting things behind the subject. “If the brightest thing in your picture is not the subject, it is a big distraction and your picture suffers.” That is what I say. What I think is “What were you thinking? Were you thinking? Pay attention!!”
The background of an image is a very important part of a photograph. It is so important that if the background is bad the photo is automatically bad. There are no exceptions. Bad background, bad image. This means that the background must be a deliberate choice you make. It is not something you just happen to get. You look for a subject and then confirm that the background is good. If the background is not good, no matter how good the subject is- you lose! Bad background that can’t be fixed means you don’t take the picture. (And if you do be very sure you do’t show it to me in a workshop!)
Here are some examples of pairs of pictures with the subject basically the same but with the background dramatically better.
There are two easy ways to control the background- moving the camera to get a better viewing angle or changing the f-stop to lessen the depth of field and soften the background.
Examples of small position change in camera to improve the background:
Examples of reducing the depth of field to make the background less distracting. The first pair shows the background I chose for the Texas Bluebonnet and then the final image. I spent a lot of time looking for a flower with just the right background and then some time figuring out which the best f-stop would be to give me the flower in focus and the background out of focus. These are deliberate decisions.
With these examples it is plain to see how some easy adjustments make a big difference in the appearance and the impact of the photo. All it takes is paying attention to the area behind your subject and making the necessary changes.