A Better Background

In photography, the background can make or break a shot. Therefore, composing a scene in which the subject stands out against the background is important, as is the aperture we choose to control the sharpness or softness of the background. Of course, choosing a background that complements the subject is also important. Many times, however, we’re not in total control of the background. Sometimes the subject looks great, but the background looks distracting, bad or boring.

In this column, we’ll take a look at a few quick fixes for the background. I used Photoshop CS6 for my enhancements here, but you can make similar enhancements using other image-editing programs.


The opening image is an enhancement of this photograph, which I took in Merritt Island, Fla. The background is busy, and the egret doesn’t dramatically stand out. What’s more, the other egrets in the scene detract from the main subject. The quick fix began with simple cropping and cloning. Darkening the background evenly was the next, and very important, step.

Notice I used the word "evenly" when I mentioned darkening the background. Trying to do this evenly with the Burn tool would be quite difficult. The key to darken the background evenly is to use a Curves Adjustment Layer: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves.

Once you create your Adjustment Layer, pull the Curve down to the bottom right-hand corner of the dialog box. That darkens the image evenly. (Pulling up the Curve to the top left makes the image uniformly lighter.)

After you make your Curves adjustment, your entire picture looks dark, making the main subject also look dark. That’s where the Adjustment layer comes it.

When you create an Adjustment Layer, your adjustment is made on a new layer (the top layer seen here, in blue). On that layer you’ll see a layer mask on the right, originally filled with white. Your goal is to "mask out" the Curves adjustment on the main subject. That’s easy. On the toolbar, select black as the foreground color. Next, select a soft brush. Carefully paint over (mask out) the Curves effect on the main subject. You can see the result of your "masking out" on the layer mask. Here, it looks like a silhouette of the egret.

If you make a mistake and mask out some of the background, it’s no problem. Select white as the foreground color and paint over that area. Remember, black masks out, white reveals.


Blurring the background is another technique to make the subject stand out. I did that to create this image of a Huli Wigman who I photographed in Papua New Guinea.

As with darkening the background, using the Blur tool to soften the background probably would result in a background that looks unevenly blurred and, worse yet, fake. For an evenly blurred background, one option is to use the Gaussian Blur filter as a Smart Filter. Here’s the quick fix.

Open your Layers panel. Go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters. When you click OK, you’ll see a tiny icon in the bottom right-hand corner of your original layer (circled in red here). It’s only after you select a filter, Gaussian Blur, in this case, that you’ll see what looks like a layer mask under that layer.

Again, that mask is originally filled with white (shown here), as with an Adjustment Layer. As before, select black as the foreground color, select a soft brush and paint over the main subject, the man, in this example. The result is that the man is sharp and the background is evenly blurred.


Here’s my original photograph of the Huli Wigman. As you can see, my final image is a bit cropped. I cropped the image to draw more attention to the main subject and to eliminate the distracting elements at the top of the frame—two good reasons to crop.

Well, that’s it for this quick fix, or two quick fixes, in this case. I hope to see you back here in the next issue.

Rick Sammon is a longtime friend of and writer for this magazine. Get to know him better at www.ricksammon.info.

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