Why It’s Important to Pay Attention to Your Backgrounds in Photography

Why It’s Important to Pay Attention to Your Backgrounds in Photography

In today’s article, you’re going to learn about the importance of backgrounds in photography. Knowing how to best use the background will have a big impact on the success of your photo.

You’re going to discover the different approaches to dealing with the background, and how that background will then work as a counterweight to your main subject.

So turn your eye away from the main subject, and see what a good background will do for your final image.

backgrounds in photography
The strong pattern in the background leads the eye to the model, who is the main subject in this portrait photo.

Background or main subject?

The answer to this question is, of course, both.

As a photographer, you need to pay equal attention to the main subject and the background. It’s easy to lose track of the background while you focus on your main subject. Take a little longer composing your photo and look to the background. You’re looking to avoid clutter in the background while lining up leading lines with your main subject.

backgrounds in photography
In this photo, the street hawker is the main subject, but equally important is the background and the mood the background provides.

Composing with the background

The background is an important aspect of portrait and still life photography. And the background often takes up the entire photograph when shooting landscapes, so you pay particular attention to it by default.

So what are you looking for in the background, when the main focus of the image is your main subject? The answer is design elements, such as:

  • Lines: Are there leading lines in the background? Then make sure they lead the eye to the main subject. Equally, make sure the background is compositionally sound. This will often mean positioning the subject in the left or right third of the frame.
  • Patterns: Is there a textured background such as a brick wall behind your subject? Make sure that this fills the background.
  • Minimalism: Avoid background clutter for a more minimalist photo. Step to the side if this removes an unwanted element from your photo such as a lamp post or a person.
  • Frames: Like leading lines, if there is a natural frame you can use in the background then line this up with your main subject.
backgrounds in photography
The frame gives the photo a more minimal feel, yet there is still a story captured with the moving person.

Work with the background or remove it?

You have a choice as a photographer whether you want to use the background in your frame, or whether you want to eliminate it.

The choice is an artistic one, and for certain types of photography (such as street photography), you’ll certainly want to include the background.

So let’s look at these two approaches.

backgrounds in photography
This photo has a minimalist feel, produced by a strobe with a snoot attached.

The story is in the background

The background is vital in that it gives your photo context. How your main subject interacts with the background gives your photo more narrative, and hence it becomes a stronger photo. That’s not an excuse to include clutter, though; you should still look to see what elements can be removed from the background.

The ideal photo then shows your main subject, and just enough of the background to provide that story. So how will you achieve this?

  • Focal length: A change in focal length can have a big impact, especially on the background. Longer focal lengths will allow you to compress the background behind your main subject, but at the (likely) cost of losing narrative content that would have enhanced the photo.
  • Bokeh: Bokeh refers to the out-of-focus portion of your photo. This effect can be controlled, and you don’t need to completely blur out the background. A soft-focus background can give your photo a story without forcing the eye away from your main subject.
  • Framing: If you happen to find a natural frame in front of your subject, you can use this. Use it to frame the main subject and the area of the background that’s important. Then the frame can naturally remove unwanted elements in your photo by blocking them from view.
backgrounds in photography
This photo shows how background can add context to the main subject. Soft bokeh is used here.

Minimal backgrounds in photography

The other way to deal with the background is to remove it, blur it out, or ensure it’s one particular texture.

Taking this approach will give your photo a much more minimal feel, and this can be just as effective when producing an interesting image. This option is well worth considering when you have a very interesting main subject or, even better, a main subject that provides its own story by doing something interesting.

So how will you go about producing minimal backgrounds in photography?

  • Low-Key: A low-key effect involves perfectly exposing the main subject while underexposing the background. The resultant photo will then have a black background. To achieve this, light your subject with a narrow beam of sunlight or use a strobe with a snoot attached.
  • Bokeh: Now the aim is to completely blur out the background. The best lenses to do this are prime lenses, and you’ll want to use the largest available aperture. The greatest effect will be achieved when there is a large distance between the main subject and the background.
  • Texture: Backgrounds like brick walls, metal shop shutters, or concrete blocks can work well here. The aim is to fill the background with a particular pattern and nothing else.
  • Color block: Again, a wall can work here, but it should be a single color. Alternatively, how about aiming at the sky on a clear day, so you have just blue for your background?
backgrounds in photography
This photo includes stronger bokeh with the background blurred out. However, the colors in the background still serve to frame the leaf.

Maximize backgrounds in photography!

Now that you know how important it is to pay attention to the background, how will that change your photography? Are there techniques you use that haven’t been mentioned in this article?

As always, we’d love to see your photos and for you to share your opinions. If you have photos where the background is key to the success of the photo, then please share those in the comments section. And explain why you think the background is so important!

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