Shoot with intention. The remainder will fall into place, right?
Today we are going to discuss different kinds of Background Distractions, and some ideas on how to go about eliminating them. But let’s get back to intention for just a moment longer.
If, while in the field, everything we do with your camera is done for a specific reason, you’ll develop a workflow that should have you on the path towards creating successful images. Shooting with intention slows us down and gives us time and opportunity to see easily missed details before it’s too late. Details like Background Distractions.
So, What are some examples of Background Distractions? Let’s look at just a couple.
Intrusion is a big word for those annoying little things that seem to just pop into a scene without us noticing. It may be a tree branch, or a telephone pole growing out of someone’s head, or a random body part poking in from out of frame. Whatever the case, they are things that don’t belong. It’s important to know these things will likely always be noticed, and they’ll always be a distraction. I feel as if these things are easier to eliminate while in the field, rather than finding them later. Start by scanning the edges of your frame, and work your way in. If there is something there, fix it. You might have to move around, reframe, or even find a new angle.
Bright & Black
Our eyes are drawn from dark to light, and from cool to warm. you may utilize this knowledge already when composing images, and in your post-processing work. Our eye is always drawn to the brightest spot in an image. Think a blown highlight, your eye is going to identify that immediately. However, overly dark areas can be distracting too. Almost always we work to eliminate blown highlights, and we look to have some detail in our darks. So, work to identify those excessively light or dark spots while in the field by defocusing the lens a bit so that you’ll see everything in only fields of tone and color. Now, decide whether they are a distraction.
This is exactly what it sounds like: two objects in an image overlap one another. This one you must tackle in the field by moving and changing angles to create appropriate spacing. Sometimes, like when photographing wildlife, they’ll move for you if you have time to wait. I think about this one a lot, especially when photographing the Scarlet Macaws of Costa Rica. You often find these beautiful birds in pairs. Spending a good deal of time with a pair will generally provide enough opportunity to get an image where they are spaced nicely, without any overlap, which happens frequently as they interact with each other.
But not all background distractions are this easy to identify. Often, things in the background are just a little cluttered, active, or just, well, distracting. What can be done?
Find scenes with clean backgrounds
This one is not the easiest. Ever looked really hard for one, and then threw your hands up in the air and just shot something that was “good enough?” It is pretty difficult to find awesome scenes with super clean backgrounds. But, at the same time you’ve seen photos that nail the art of simplicity. Finding a simple scene with a clean background took that photographer some work. He/she looked for it, changed angles, and really worked the area before finding it. Often we approach a scene with a defined subject, one that we really want to shoot in a manner we’ve preconceived. Don’t be shy about moving your body and your tripod. We preach this all the time on Backcountry Journeys tours. If you’ve joined us on a tour, you’ve certainly heard your guide tell you to get creative. “Yes, this is our intended shot, but don’t be afraid to find different angles.” Move to your left, then to your right. Get low (lower those tripod legs all the way, maybe), or scramble down into a different vantage point. Whatever it takes to find something that works.
Fill the Frame
If a shot allows, go ahead and fill your frame with the subject. An easy example of this would be a portrait of a big bison breathing in the snow at Yellowstone, or of a colorful bird on a branch in Botswana. With subjects like that, who needs a background anyway? This sounds too easy, right? Well, as with everything it’s not as easy as it sounds. You’ll need to attend to edge control (looking for those intrusions), and really think through your composition. If done effectively, however, you’ll have a nicely exposed image, filling the frame with only what you want the viewer to see with good bokeh in the background.
Use the Background in Storytelling
Now that I’ve recommended finding scenes with clean backgrounds, and filling the frame, I’ll also recommend utilizing the background because it’s a great way to tell the story. There are many instances when including the background is absolutely the right thing to do so as to provide the viewer with a sense of place. Think about this example. Which of these examples sounds like the more impactful image, a frame completely filled with a portrait of a lion, or of a lion in its natural habitat, in Botswana, providing context and a larger story? This, of course, is also not the easiest thing to do. Who said photography is easy? Wasn’t me! Perhaps look first for a subject, during great lighting conditions and then find an angle that will give you a good look at the environment behind it, keeping in mind simplicity, composition, etc.
Use Depth of Field
Using depth of field to control your backgrounds is a big one. By doing this you are taking control of how much will be in focus. Shooting “Wide Open,” or with a small f-number, like f/4, will give the least amount of depth of field, while larger f-numbers, like f/16, will increase the range of focus. To defocus the background if the subject is near, it’s essential to use wide apertures (small f-number). The farther away your subject is, the larger f-numbers can be utilized to ensure sharpness throughout the subject.
Since the angle of view is more narrow when utilizing a longer lens, less of the background will be shown. This tends to create a separation of the background from the subject and eliminates potential distractions. For instance, suppose you experimented with lenses on a subject that remains the same distance from you. Use a 50 mm lens, then switch to a 200mm lens. With the 50mm, you’ll have four times the amount of background area as with the 200mm lens.
Creating images that have an impact takes work. A lot of work. There are many things that go into it all. Eliminating background distractions is one of those many details that must be considered when photographing landscapes and/or wildlife. Shooting with intention, and having a sound workflow in the field will greatly improve your attention to detail with regard to distractions, and much much more.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.