If there’s one thing that will improve your photography it’s getting your backgrounds right. Time and time again I see wonderful pictures ruined by badly, or lazily chosen backgrounds. We’ve all shot them, a beautiful portrait of someone that has a telegraph pole sticking out of their head, or a background that is cluttered with “stuff” that only serves one purpose, to distract the viewer from the main subject.
Think of your backgrounds like a play in a theatre where you’re the viewer looking at the stage. Out front is our main subject, the protagonist, the starring role. But behind them, in the background, are a number of other actors all wearing colourful clothing and waving their arms frantically in the air. We should be watching and listening to what our star of the show is saying, but we can’t because what’s in the background is distracting our attention away from them.
I always teach my students the “HIACS” rule.
As you can probably tell, it’s a portrait term but one that translates very well into all genres of photography where we need to delineate our main subject from it’s background.
So thinking practically, how can we all improve our backgrounds. Well for a start we need to briefly unpack the difference between a “snapshot” (reactive), and a “planned” (pro-active) shot. A snapshot is simply “an amateur photograph taken without preparation.” and a planned shot is one that exercises “the process of deciding in detail how to do something before you actually start to do it.” Reactive vs Proactive.
(I must just say that I absolutely love snapshots, especially when shot on film and whilst using the on camera flash, it’s just an aesthetic that I enjoy looking at, maybe we can look at them in more detail when space and time permits.)
Let’s now move on to executing a proactive shot and exercising the HIACS rule. What techniques can we use to get backgrounds that will support, not dominate, the main subject ?
- Slow down your shooting process
- Think about background first, not last
- Place your subject in front of a plain even coloured background
- Avoid overly textured backgrounds
- Depth of field/Blur
- Check the edges of the frame before you shoot
And here is the golden rule : DO NOT TAKE THE PHOTOGRAPH IF THE BACKGROUND IS DISTRACTING.
It’s not rocket science, it’s just rethinking your process a little, and trust me if you get this right your photographs will improve. Guaranteed.