A good composition begins with and is highly dependent on having a good subject that attracts the viewer’s interest. Having a good background is essential to sparking that subject interest by not being distracting or by successfully adding some context and interest to the subject.
Always check your background first before capturing your image. Be aware of distracting elements. Things like competing bright colors and lights, lines that draw attention away from your subject. Beware of other subjects in the composition that compete for the viewer’s attention also.
There are numerous ways to improve your background. I’ll share some tried and true methods that will help make a great composition with the use of good backgrounds. Most of these strategies are largely effective for portraits or portraiture but they can also be used for a variety of other subjects.
1. Change the Angle
Try getting high or low on your subject. Getting low will fill your background with the sky or trees. Getting high will generally fill the background with less distraction with for instance grass when outside. Shooting down by getting up high on your subject is also an effective way of slimming down your model when shooting portraiture.
2. Use a Long Focal Length
When using a longer focal length the depth of field or area that’s in focus decreases. This is useful for blurring your background away into mush, allowing the subject to shine.
3. Keep Your Background Distant
The farther away you can get your background the less in focus it will become. The distance will also add depth to your composition which adds impact. This is why open fields are so popular with outside portraiture.
4. Move the Subject
Find a suitable background that doesn't distract the viewer from the subject. Keep distractions like tree limbs growing out of the subjects head out of your composition.
5. Open up Your Aperture
Especially effective with a distracting background, blurring the background by opening up your aperture will melt the distractions away. This is useful because it shortens the depth of field, or the area that is in focus. Stopping down the lens will have the opposite effect when context and added interest is needed to tell a story.
6. Fill the Frame
If you fill the frame with your subject the distractions will have a less of a chance as there’s less room in the photograph for them. You can also crop the image during post processing to eliminate distractions.
7. Move in Close
Moving in close will also aid in blurring out your background. It is even more effective with a combination of moving in close and keeping your background distant. This will enhance the subject to background separation or isolation.
8. Supply Your Own Background
This is especially useful with indoor portraiture but there’s little reason you can’t use it outside as long if it’s feasible or practical. There are many commercial solutions out there but if budget is a concern there are many homemade solutions out there that may also work just as well.
My favorite homemade solutions are black and or white felt, sold at many fabric stores. I prefer felt as it has proven to be far less reflective than other fabrics. Having a reflective background can be a distraction.
9. Post Processing
You can blur the background, darken it desaturate it, or even replace it. The possibilities with this solution are almost endless.
10. Fill Flash
Using fill flash to properly expose your subject while underexposing your background. This will remove a lot of interest or distraction from the background and enhance the attention on your subject.
You can use the sun or flash as a backlight to wash out your background. By properly exposing your subject the sun will become overexposed and will in effect blow out your background.
Improving your background will almost always improve your composition. Including a background that adds context to the subject can add interest and help tell a story. Keeping your background blurred, vague, or just plain uninteresting will add focus and interest to your subject. This allows your composition to be more pleasing to the viewer’s eyes.
Creating a great composition with an appropriate background doesn’t have to be hard and it usually isn’t. The main thing to remember is to be aware of your background and take the steps to change it if it’s found to be too distractive.