How to Wrangle Control of Your Out-of-Control Backgrounds on Location
Distracting elements in your photograph’s background are like grocery shopping with 2 four-year-olds; you don’t realize how much extra stuff you have until you get home! I have photographed extensively in botanic gardens in Texas, Pennsylvania, and California, and more than once I’ve come home to look at the images of exceptionally rare butterflies only to notice that there was some strange twig in the background. I’m always horrified! Who would’ve put something like that there?? I am certain it wasn’t there when I made the photograph. Must be those pesky four-year-olds!
We tend to get so excited about the subject matter of our choice that most people not only forget to use the background to their advantage, but they forget to look at it and evaluate it entirely. This can be devastating for any artist. Just when you think that you’ve made the masterpiece of your career, you discover that there is something so egregious in the background that your only option is to return to the scene and re-shoot the photo or spend a few days in Photoshop.
Of course, it’s undeniably exciting when you join a conference like Out of Chicago Botanic and are granted access to somewhere as prestigious and exceptional as the Chicago Botanic Garden. If you’re in my group, we’ll be chanting the collective mantra, “background, background, background.”
The idea is to make images more slowly and more carefully. No photographer that I know ever says, “Oh, I really wish I was able to spend more time at my computer.” We are artists and we would rather be outside photographing. This is why I recommend that when you come upon a scene that is so exquisite and you decide you want to photograph it, slow down, stop, and repeat the mantra, “background, background, background.” Then, look beyond your subject and evaluate the background. If what you’re seeing is mostly dark, are there light things in the background that are distracting? If you’re photographing fully opened roses (which are essentially circles), are there sticks or twigs in the background (lines)?
Most often we are photographing flowers using a relatively shallow depth of field, often f/5.6 or less. You may think that creating such soft focus in the background will help you minimize distracting elements, but that isn’t always the case. A high contrast situation such as a stray light twig against a darker brown background will still show up and be very distracting even if it’s out of focus. You can do two things to combat this: move the subject, or move yourself.
I can tell you with great certainty that any botanical garden in which I have photographed frowns upon moving your subjects. With a little bit of attention and practice, you would be surprised at how slightly you have to shift your position in order to greatly alter what shows up in the background. Often times repositioning yourself slightly allows you to use the actual subject matter to block whatever distracting element is in the background.
Photo ©Monica Royal
I learned about the principle of light fall-off and fast shutter speed by accident several years ago. I was trying to take a picture of a flower in my kitchen. The setting sun was coming in through the window and I loved the way it was backlighting the flower. When I got close with my macro lens and metered off of the intensely lit flower, it gave me a setting with a shutter speed of one 1/1000 of a second. I was surprised and confused because, of course, there was no motion that I had to control. When I made the image and saw a completely black background on the LCD screen, instead of the sink of dirty dishes that were ACTUALLY there, I was thrilled!
In more extreme lighting conditions, you can put your subject in the brightest part of the frame and meter off of that for good exposure. If you’re not comfortable shooting in full manual, set your camera to shutter priority and dial in a faster shutter speed. Then meter off of the scene and make an image that way. Another tip that may help you if you have the ability to control it is to increase the distance between the subject in the background. This, in combination with the faster shutter speed, enhances the principle of light fall-off and will render your background even darker.
Photo ©Monica Royal
We know that if we are in a beautiful public place such as the Chicago Botanic Garden sometimes we have no control of the background. Sometimes crowds or other factors will prohibit you from changing your vantage point. If you can’t physically move it, and you can’t physically move yourself, and you can’t use camera settings to control the background, then sometimes you’ll end up with an exciting opportunity to create a full bleed abstract. Originally a term most often associated with printing, Wikipedia defines it as, “Full bleed is printing from one edge of the paper to the other without the standard borders by which most personal printers are limited. This is useful for printing brochures, posters, and other marketing materials.”
When we are talking about photography, we’re talking about an image that extends all the way from one side to the other. There is no discernment between the foreground and background. The subject matter literally takes up the whole frame. Think Jackson Pollock style, but swap maniacal genius painting splatter technique for the carefully selected crop tool in the editing software of your choice. It’s OK to crop your images after the fact. You often hear people say that you should design ‘in-camera.’ That principle may work most of the time, knowing that your design choice is going to be cropping to a different ratio in post-production. It doesn’t make it less of a design choice than if you were to relocate and frame the subject matter with a better background. Cropping shouldn’t be considered a tool used after the creation of your image to fix it, it should be a tool that you design intentionally.
In this, before and after image you can see that cropping out the distracting irregular elements in the background allows the viewer to stop thinking of the subject matter as that of a rose that needs a better home and transforms the experience to be one in which you get to enjoy the brilliant deep color and soft waves of pure loveliness, whatever the subject matter may be.
Photo ©Monica Royal
When all else fails and you have to resort to photo editing software to clean up nasty stuff that’s in the background, avoid the goo. After 15 years in business, I’m pretty good at Photoshop but I hate trying to use the clone stamp tool or the patch tool or the spot healing brush in the area I call the goo. That’s the part of the background of an image made with an aperture of f/2.8. If the background is far enough away from the subject almost nothing is discernible and it’s all just soft fuzzy goo. That’s the hardest place to try to remove something from because the pixel gradation is so smooth and delicate that even when you clone pixels from immediately beside another pixel it doesn’t stamp the right way. You can set your brush to a feather 0f 10 or even more if you dare, but it’s still just a difficult place to try to edit, and avoiding it at all costs is advisable.
If I have something in the background that I can’t control, then sometimes I will re-design the image and style it with the intention of having a busier background. That way I can clone and heal much more easily. If you are stuck behind a computer trying to remove an unwanted item from your background that someone rudely put there when you weren’t looking, use a mixture of the tools. It will take all of them; clone stamp, patch tool, healing brush, spot healing brush to make a seamless edit. Sometimes you get lucky and Photoshop makes it easy for you, but I’d rather be outside shooting than inside behind a computer any day.
Photo ©Monica Royal
There are no rules in art; just preferences. Enjoy the artwork that you make and enjoy how you make it.