Photography Composition: Backgrounds

A big part of advanced photography is knowing how to capture your subjects in a great background and getting that great background can often be a slight step to the side, crouching down a bit or blurring out the background completely. If your photograph that you are taking is about your subject and not about the background, the goal is to try to eliminate any distractions. That is why a background can make or break your image. Put your subject in front of a super busy scene and it takes the focus off of your subject – not to mention, it can sometimes create mergers. Your background should not have a bunch of distractions and should help focus attention on your subject.

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First, you must watch out if there are any bright spots or bright colors in the background that are distracting, if so, move the subject or move yourself so they are not competing with the subject. Second, look if there are any lines protruding from your subject. If you are photographing a person, search if there are any tree brunches, power lines or anything else like that coming from behind the person’s head. Then, find out where your horizon is. If you want the sky to be in your photo, make sure that it doesn’t cut through the head of the subject. Drop down to get more of the sky and have the horizon lower or cut it out completely by getting up a bit higher. This goes for horizontal lines like building too. Don’t have them go through your subject’s head, that can be very distracting.

Next, create separation between the subject and background with space and focus. This could mean literally having your subject walk further away from the background or, it could also mean, dropping your f-stop to get a blurrier background, with a shallow depth of field. By blurring out the background, you can remove distracting details to increase the literal focus on the subject. So, by using these rules you should be able to capture less distracting images that truly focus on your subject.

What does the background say?

Also, be aware of what the background can say about your subject. If doing portraits, make sure the person wears clothes that contrast with the background. For example, wearing brown or green in a forest might not look good, wear something that stands out like red. Or perhaps you like the idea of your subject matching the background and you want them to blend in, the choice is yours.

Lastly, different locations and textures can create different moods for your photo. A brick alleyway says something different than a wood paneled wall, a bright beach says something different than an office building. Those are examples of how a background can change the story of your photos.

Choosing backgrounds and backdrops

There are a few key factors when deciding on the right background/backdrop for your photo shoot:

  • What are you shooting… a product or person? Shooting a product typically requires a crisp and clean background to give all focus to the subject.
  • What look and feel does your client want? Your client might be a corporate officer looking for a timeless headshot where a canvas background would do the trick, or your client may want an edgy image where a floor drop might work as a great background.
  • What mood are you trying to convey? A plain black seamless paper or muslin would work for something dark and moody. If you want to recreate a scene, a painted backdrop would be great.
  • How much weight can you carry? Some backgrounds like canvas and vinyl can weight a lot whereas muslin and a short roll of seamless can weigh very little.
  • How much room do you have for a backdrop? While many backgrounds come in various sizes, if you have a small 8-foot space to shoot, a 9-foot roll of seamless may not be ideal.
  • What is your budget? While muslin and the support needed to set it up is very low cost, painted canvas and some floor drops can cost up to a couple hundred dollars.

Types of backgrounds

There are several different types of backgrounds out there from outdoor or indoor location backgrounds to plain seamless paper and everything in between. Here are a few general types of backgrounds and some of the pros and cons to consider for using them.

Indoor/outdoor locations

An indoor or outdoor location background can be a wonderful choice and can give context to editorial, fashion and environmental portrait work, however, sometimes the background can be a bit busy and distracting causing the need for some type of faux background. These backgrounds have as a pro that they add context for the subject, but they are sometimes weather dependent, they can be busy or distracting taking focus from the subject and with a bad composition there can be mergers, meaning overlapping subjects.

Portable backgrounds

Portable backgrounds can be a great choice as they are versatile, convenient due to collapsibility and inexpensive. You can use them in the studio or take them with you on location. A 6-foot portable background can fold up into a circle as small as 24 inches. They typically have a border so may not be a great choice for a full-length shot, but they work perfectly for headshots, portraits and three-quarter body shots.

As pros, they are easy to port with for travel and storage since it folds small and can be used as a great rescue background. Also, there are many beautiful colors and designs to choose from. As contras, it can get scratched and damaged easily if not taken care of properly and if you are small, it can be difficult to fold up due to its long length and arm span needed.

Muslin

Muslin can be an excellent choice to shoot with since it’s not reflective at all, folds as small as you need and can be hung from a portable background support and costs a fraction of some of the other choices. This all-cotton option is a classic choice for these reasons. Imagine, before cameras, how the old masters’ portrait paintings sometimes had a drape of material in the background. They knew it worked then. We know it works now.

As pros, they are versatile, they can be dyed in different colors, they can be shaped or draped on anything, they are light-weighted and can be washed. As cons, they wrinkle easily and require a steam iron.

Canvas backdrops

Canvas backdrops come in a variety of sizes, colors and designs. They are a good choice because they can be reused repeatedly but they can also be a bit heavy to set up. You can use a canvas backdrop multiple times without your image looking the same by changing up your foreground elements and your subject’s wardrobe and accessories. Canvas backdrops, however, can be one of the most expensive choices but can be one of the most creative as well.

The pros are there are an endless variety of colors and designs, they are easy to fold up and store and they give excellent creative opportunities. But they are heavy and expensive.

Floor drops

Floor drops are often used together with back drops to recreate a scene. They typically come in designs such as wood floors, brick walls, metal panels or tile as shown below. A rubber floor drop also makes for a great backdrop when going for a more edgy feel to an image. It’s simple enough to still keep the focus on your subject.

They can add an edgy feel to the images, and they exist in a wide variety of designs but, depending on the size, they can be a little heavier than other options.

Vinyl

Another classic and preferred choice for photographers is vinyl. It gets a great reputation because it hangs flat whereas muslin tends to wrinkle easily and seamless tends to crinkle and get dirty more easily. Vinyl is easy to clean and takes up very little space to store as it can be stored straight up and down in a corner.

They give a matte finish and don’t reflect a flash, so they give a consistent look and feel when reusing but they are heavy, and it can be hard to find a storage, travel, solution unless getting creative.

Seamless paper

If you are looking a clean, crisp and simple background, seamless is definitely the way to go. Savage seamless paper alone comes in around 69 colors to choose from, making it an optimal choice if you are looking for a specific color. Seamless paper requires a few additional pieces for support than other backgrounds and these different pieces can be pricey unless you put your kit together yourself.

As pro we find that they have multitude of colors to choose from, they are a straight color or shade of background, they are crisp and clean, great for commercial imager and perfect for full length images. But as contras, they cannot be cleaned and reused which means it can be costly since you have to discard the seamless paper used on the floor with each use. They require a good deal of room in your space width-wise since rolls come in 53” or 9 feet widths, length-wise as to keep the seamless seamless your subject has to step forward and height-wise to keep the top of the seamless from showing in your images your papers need to rest high. In addition, rolls are heavy and require sturdy background support system.

Other creative backgrounds

Some other great creative choices for backgrounds include materials such as wallpaper, sequin fabric and designer art paper which makes for a great headshot background that you can get at your local art store, among numerous other options.

About colors

It’s important that your background does not overwhelm your subject so be careful with the colors that you choose. Crazy bold colors with patterns might work well for a Rockstar photo shoots, but you probably wouldn’t shoot your grandmother in front of one of those background colors/designs.

Colors should also be complementary to your subject’s features and their wardrobe so that you don’t lose your subject in a “same color” scheme. As mentioned previously, colors can also help effectuate a feeling or emotion for the subject in the image, like a black background can dispel a mood of mystery and darkness while white can instill purity and goodness.

As you put together your photo shoot, don’t forget that background as it can make or break your image. Your background is a very important piece of your photo shoot puzzle, something that it will never be without – so it’s important not only to choose creatively, but to choose wisely so that the focus stays on your subject and not the background.

Continue to lesson 23: Using shapes in your composition