Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to look at it more closely. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Pilot

The Pilot
The Pilot

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Background: Making or Breaking the Composition

The Background is one of the most important compositional elements for almost any picture and how you use it can make or break a photograph. Sometimes it needs to be discrete, other times bold or neutral, it should always provide context, and it should never overwhelm or compete against the picture but should always support the image theme. The background in essence becomes the foundation upon which well balanced photographs are constructed.


Novice photographers will often concentrate on their subject and forget about what is in the background. Many times what might have been an otherwise good photograph is ruined by allowing the background to interfere with what they are actually attempting to accomplish artistically. When constructing a picture, especially of a person, the background becomes the single most important element other than the subject itself. Using the background as part of your composition requires you to be aware of what is going on around your subject. Most great photos start with a great background.

Backgrounds can be rendered in many ways. Some are soft and diffused, other times it can be sharp and crisp depending on how you use Depth of Field. Your background can actually become your subject as long as you have something in the foreground that leads you to it.

Let's look at some examples.


This first image is a classic example of a Receding background. The main subjects are close to the camera, lit with a single speedlight just off camera to the left and as you can see, the pillars fall away like piano keys, yet they remain in virtual focus all the way back. The small dark patch in the upper left corner helps to balance the image with the dark suit of our male subject where the bride's white dress and sash helps to tie them to the background pillars. The shadows coming off the pillars along with the receding angle act like pointers leading the eye to the main subject. Everything associated with the pillars become background elements that enhance the image without overwhelming it. The background in this instance becomes an integral part of the photograph. How did I make this shot? Well, I used a small aperture f/10 and an average focal length lens 50mm focusing on my main subjects and allowing the physics of the lens aperture do the rest. The combination of the two allowed for a wide depth of field which kept the entire scene in focus.

Now here is one where the background is the subject.


The country lane and fence row leads the eye from the foreground into the image where the background becomes the subject. In this case, the country lane becomes as important as the main subject by leading the viewer into the image, but the main subject is what adds a nostalgic mood to the setting. Light is also important in this image with the highlights and streaks of dark/light randomly filling in the fields on either side. Again, the background and foreground remain in focus all the way through the composition. In this case, doing so was an important consideration to creating the shot. How did I make this shot. Similar to the first one with a focal length lens around 50mm and an aperture setting of around f/16. I focused about halfway down the lane and again let the lens do what it wanted to do not unlike the first image.

This one demonstrates a softer, but dramatic background. It is also busier, so by softening it the busy nature it has becomes less noticeable without sacrificing the dramatic flavor. 


The main subject here is crisp and sharp which helps to separate her from the background. Although the background is soft, it is still sharp enough to contribute to the mood of the image without detracting from the main focus of the shot. How did I make this shot? I used a longer focal length lens 120mm with a fstop of f/9.0. The combination of long lens and middle size aperture gave me just enough depth of field to create the softening effect of the background. A single speedlight setup just off camera to the left provided good fill light to bring out her face and eyes.

This next image places a great deal of importance on the background where it enhances and contributes to the impact of the photograph by giving the picture a high level of context.


Here, I wanted to tie the fireman to an historical element, in this case the old firetruck. To capture the full impact I used two studio lights with soft boxes that flooded the subject with a evenly distributed amount of light with emphasis from the left side, yet spill over enough to illuminate the old truck in the background. By turning on the truck lights I was able to warm up the atmosphere a small amount and bring a element of importance to the background. The fstop was f/14 which provided a wide depth of field thus keeping the truck in focus. The shutter speed was only 1/10th of a second with a 40mm lens. Shooting at such a slow shutter is sometimes questionable except when using flash units. The flash units fire so quickly, they will freeze the subject when under normal circumstances, they might be blurred. The background in this image becomes part of the overall subject and contributes to the story in a dramatic way. Color is also a consideration with the boldness and warmth of the red colorization.

The next image is where all of the emphasis is on the subject and the background serves only as a Neutral Medium to support them.


The photograph was back lit by the sun which helps to separate them from the neutral flavor of the background. A single speedlight was used to expose their faces. Neutral backgrounds such as this are very effective in portraits and create an overall pleasing effect. How did I do this one? Well, The background was a long ways off, so I used a middle of the row aperture setting of f/7.1 which gave me a good depth of field so I could keep both subjects in focus in spite of the difference in their spacing, and I used a long focal length lens 280mm. Combining a long focal length with even a middle aperture setting will always give you a nicely blurred background especially when the background is in the distance.

The last image is one where I used a mottled background, also known as Bokea, to create a sense of enchantment and place.


This was taken inside a shaded area where the mottling bokea effect was created by the sun filtering through the trees. Some of the sun that filtered through was used to provide a slight highlight on the young lady's hair helping to separate her from the background and to bring emphasis to her. A single speedlight and small soft box to soften its light was used to illuminate the two. It is important when using a dark background like this one to provide some kind separation light for your subjects. This can be done with a natural sunbeam, or with a small speedlight placed behind them, or even a reflector to bounce light back toward them from behind. The background in this case is quite blurred which places the entire focus on the subjects, yet the Bokea effect (mottled look) it carries creates a warm and comfortable background. How did I make this image? I used a somewhat large aperture of f/6.3 along with a long focal lens of 200mm. With the trees being a good distance away this combination helped to create a nicely blurred dark background that helped to place emphasis on our subjects yet provide its own pleasing effect.

When taking almost any kind of photograph, especially portraits, you the photographer must look beyond what you are viewing directly in front of you and consider how the background can contribute to the overall mood and impact of the image. Recognizing how the background contributes to the composition will often dictate not only how, but where you take the photograph. Your background can make or break your image. Use it with care and thought and your images will benefit tremendously by the effects a great background can provide.

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