Beginner photographers don’t pay enough attention to backgrounds. They end up with frenzied compositions and frames filled with distracting elements or, even worse, telephone poles and palm trees growing out of the tops of heads. One of the most effective ways to take better pictures is to clean up backgrounds and make them less distracting. Here are five tips to help make simplified backgrounds.
Use A Long Lens For Simplified Backgrounds
The longer the lens, the shallower the depth of field will appear. Not only does a telephoto lens eliminate more physical area from the frame (which is already a great step to simplifying the composition) it also amplifies the apparent difference between the in-focus subject and the out-of-focus background. This compression and clean, out-of-focus background look is especially useful for portraits or any situation in which a sharp subject should be isolated against a fuzzy background.
Depth of field is useful when you want to see more details in a subject, but it becomes a problem when it makes background elements appear too sharp. Sharp background elements compete for attention, and that’s exactly why we want to create simplified backgrounds in the first place. So if more depth of field makes for busier backgrounds, it stands to reason that less depth of field—from wider apertures—will create blurred, out-of-focus backgrounds. And it’s true. Instead of shooting at ƒ/11, try opening up to ƒ/4 or to the lens’s widest aperture (smallest f/ number). This shallow depth of field—particularly when combined with a telephoto lens—is a great step toward more simplified backgrounds.
By moving from where you’re standing, even just a step or two, you could see a whole different background. This might be the difference between a busy background and a seamless one—all achieved by kneeling down or taking a step to the left. If the background is especially busy and problematic, try to get to higher ground so you’re shooting down at the subject and turning the ground behind them into the background.
Use Light For Simplified Backgrounds
Sometimes repositioning the subject so that it’s in light while the background is in shadow is enough to simplify the background and make the entire composition better. This might come from repositioning the subject or the camera. Or it could be the result of adding your own light or creating a specific shadow on the background. For a portrait made in sunlight, for instance, using a flag or other scene element to throw a shadow on the background helps create contrast and simplify the shot. For a more pronounced effect, add a light close to the subject when they’re standing far from the background. The falloff from subject to background will make it darker and less distracting. And if you use a strong enough flash you can even overpower the sun and create a dark background on a sunny day.
Improve It In Post
Not only is Photoshop useful for making the subject look better, it’s the perfect opportunity to minimize distracting background elements. This could be from dodging and burning or even using the clone stamp or healing brushes to clone away eye-catching distractions that interfere with the simplicity we’re going for. My rule of thumb is that if it competes for attention and it’s not an important part of the frame, I’ll do almost anything to make it go away. Cloning out elements certainly accomplishes this, but so does blurring the background or darkening it so that it becomes less competition for the subject. Even something as simple as a subtle vignette can help pull the eye away from background elements at the edges of the frame and in toward the center of attention.