Maximize the Background in your Composition

In a composition, the subject may be the main interest and usually the focal point of the photo but the background is equally important since it can make or break a shot. Here are some tips on how you can make the most of your background to enhance your subject and your overall image:

Use a plain black or white background to keep the focus solely on your subject –backgrounds in black or white are often used in studio setups, and usually with glamour, still-life, product, or portrait photography.  A black or white backdrop offers a clean and uncluttered look, allowing an unobstructed view of the subject and its details. White is a common background for commercial photos such as product or microstock shots.  A black backdrop, which is great for low-key lighting, is also a perfect contrast for light-colored or transparent subjects such as glass.

Maximize the Background in your Composition
Photo by Kyle May

Blur cluttered backgrounds – if your subject is set against a busy background which you don’t have much control over, an effective way to separate the subject from the background is through blurring. You can achieve this by using a shallow depth of field, keeping the subject sharp and detailed while the objects farther back are out of focus. Another option is to edit it during post-processing. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the degree of blurriness. You can make the background really blurry or make some details more or less recognizable.

Maximize the Background in your Composition
Photo by Vinoth Chandar

Use the background to provide context – another effective way to maximize your background is to use it to give the viewer an idea where the subject is located and the state of its surroundings. In this shot, the background appears to be of treetops against the sky. This setting can easily make us imagine the baby doll was tossed high up in the air. Another kind of background, such as a drab wall, most probably will not give the same impression.

Baby Toss
Photo by Country Boy Shane

The background can add mood – in many photos, the background is used to enhance the mood or atmosphere of the image. In the same photo example above of the baby doll, the overall image exudes fun, space, and playfulness due to the background scene and its light colors. The mood can drastically change if the background were darker and implied a lower camera angle.

Tip: Colors play a big part in boosting mood. Light, pastel colors usually have cheery and serene appeal, while dark colors can make a photo look mysterious or even ominous.

Add depth to the background – a photograph may be 2-dimensional but with the use of composition techniques such as leading lines and perspective, it can appear to have depth and a 3-dimensional quality.

corner post
Photo by Iowa David Morris

Use the panning technique – panning is when you follow then shoot a moving subject with your camera lens, keeping it more or less sharp while the background becomes blurry. Panning usually takes practice to get the look and timing right, but the results can be dynamic with the image implying a sense of movement.  A relatively slow shutter speed is used to catch the motion blur of the background.

Tip: If possible, use a tripod to reduce camera shake and to keep the blurry streaks looking straight and neat.

Fun time
Photo by Santiago Nicolau

Add bokeh – bokeh is the appearance and quality of the out of focus areas in a photo, and if used successfully, can add visual impact. Blurry points of light in the background due to a shallow depth of field can add charm and additional visual interest. Some bokeh may have blurry edges, others are more defined, while others look like doughnuts and not as appealing, all depending on the lens used.  Some consider the use of bokeh as cliché but if it looks interesting and helps improve the image, then why not go for it.

Portraits and Bokeh
Photo by Joe Fakih Gomez

Next photography lessons:

Photography Intermediate 1: Understanding Camera Metering

Photography Intermediate 2: Photography Tips: How To Choose A Tripod

Photography Intermediate 3: Beginners’ Emotional Photography

Photography Intermediate 4: Easy Double Exposure Photography

Photography Intermediate 5: Create a Sense of Depth to Your Shot


About Kristine Hojilla

Kristine is an avid amateur photographer from the tropical Philippine islands. She always tries to capture the extraordinary in mundane objects and scenes. Feel free to visit her profile here to see more of her works

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