Rule #8 of the unofficial rules of photography is: “always have a background.” When it comes to backgrounds, photography can take a line from the physician’s Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”
Although an interesting backdrop can add to the content of a photo, for most pictures, a clean, non-distracting background is what you want. Often when taking a portrait, people tend to have tunnel vision and concentrate so much on the subject that they forget or oversee the flaws in what’s beyond their main focus. This often results in a overly busy and distracting background or worse, things such as telephone poles or tree branches sticking out of the subject’s head. Look carefully at what’s in the entire photo before pressing the shutter button.
There are times that one has to shoot “from the hip” to capture a moment and thus you can’t always control the background, but when you can, look for a clean, uncluttered backdrop. Using a wide aperture helps. This will give you a shallow depth of field and help to throw what’s behind your subject out of focus. A telephoto lens will also help because of its inherently shallower depth of field relative to a wide-angle lens.
Try to avoid lining your subject up against a wall, no matter how plain it is. Have them stand away from the wall at least several feet to lessen the “standing-in-front-of-a-firing-squad” look
If the scene is too cluttered, you can simply move your subject to a different spot that is less so. If you can’t move your subject, try moving yourself.
After years and years of experience, Iooking for a clean background has become second nature to me. It’s something I’ve internalized and do it without even thinking much about it. I realized this a few years ago when shooting a Lodi High graduation at the Grape Bowl.
A grad got up to sing a song and at the angle at which I was standing, bright sky shone through the far tree line. The eye tends to go to the lightest portion of a photo first. I blurred out the background with a shallow depth of field, but the background was sill too distracting to me.
I simply took one step to my right, which brought into view a thicker group of trees, blocking out more of the sky. One more sidestep and the sky was completely gone. The dark backdrop combined with the graduate’s white cap and gown, made her pop out even more.
In September, Lathrop musician Henry Anadon Sr. played jazz tunes on a soprano saxophone as entertainment at a lunch for Manteca city employees as an observance of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He sat in a chair at the edge of a small park behind the Manteca Senior Center. The problem was that he was facing inward toward the park with a backdrop of a distracting car-lined street. Even with blurring the background, the view was still cluttered. I dropped to one knee, and instantly the scene improved. The scene behind was now of some trees and a house that were out of focus, bringing more emphasis to Anadon. Perhaps not perfect, but certainly better than before.
Recently I shot the Bank of Agriculture and Commerce’s annual economic presentation breakfast at the Stockton Hilton. I’ve shot there many times before and the banquet/meeting room can hold a couple of hundred people seated at tables. The problem is that the far wall is mostly cluttered with a series of doors light switches and exit signs.
Bank Chief Executive Officer William Trezza got up and spoke first. The background was a muddled mess, but by moving around, I found a spot where the wall behind was fairly clean and distraction free.
Trezza then introduced the keynote speaker, economist John W. Mitchell. I stayed in the same spot thinking that Mitchell would stand in about the same place as Trezza had. I thought that I’d have to make only minor adjustments, if any.
Mitchell, however, had other things in mind. He was a very interesting and entertaining speaker, making the subject of the economy very interesting and fun for even a layperson such as me. The problem was that he was also a very energetic speaker, as well. Normally, that would be a great thing, but he would pace at the head of the room between two projection screens set up at opposite ends of the room. I tried to move with him to line him up with the plain patch of background, but to no avail. He was just moving too much and too fast.
I decided to go back to my original spot to lay in wait and hope that he would be expressive at the moment he passed in front of the blank background. It took awhile. and I tracked him with my camera like a hunter aiming at his prey. Finally, he got to the right spot and paused his movements to make a point.
A clean, uncluttered background is something to strive for in many photos, and sometimes just moving a few feet or even inches or waiting for your subject to come into the right spot can make a world of difference.