Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

Open your eyes, express your vision #001


Watch the background!

by Bettina & Uwe Steinmueller


There are many situations where you have a great subject (often birds or animals) and the main subject is fine but the background ruins the whole picture. We think it is quite natural to concentrate on the main subject, as this is what we want to capture. In doing so we often pay too little attention to the background. Once the scene is frozen into a photo, a busy or disturbing background will later grab your attention and become an irritation.

One very useful technique is to get the background out of focus. Unfortunately this does not help all the time.

Here is an example where the background is blurred but it is still not enough for a nice photo.

Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel (Mammoth)

You probably agree that the squirrel is in a lovely pose (one frame from a larger high speed series) but the busy background ruins it. In this case we use Photoshop to rescue the photo by blurring and darkening the background.

We did not even try to do a perfect job here but still the image improved because the viewer concentrates now on this cute animal and not on its background.

We love pelicans and they are so beautiful in flight. But, again, many shots are ruined by a boring white or blue (even blurred and out of focus does not help). That is why we prefer the next shot.

No Photoshop help was needed this time! The pelican was photographed from a Pacific Beach against green Cypress trees at a steep cliff and the natural out-of-focus blur of the lens (Canon 400mm f/4 DO) solved the background problem.

We mentioned that a boring white or blue background could make images far less exciting. Does this mean you should never do that? As with all compositional rules, it is important to note that there are always exceptions.

In this case the bright background allows the viewer to concentrate on the amusing scene -- a Snowy Egret mother with its chick balancing on a wire. We doubt whether a darker background would have helped this image.

Unfortunately, while we take pictures we have to watch many things and sometimes we find ourselves under pressure to capture the moment. Never the less, watching the background is one of the more important things we need to do as photographers.

How can we improve?

• Try to use more open apertures to better blur the background (f/5.6 for example)
• Use a longer focal length lens
• Most importantly change the vantage point – move around your subject until the background works!
• Use Photoshop only as a final resort (we actually very rarely use this help for background blur, probably two photos in our entire portfolio have gotten this treatment)

Avoid taking the kinds of shots that you will later have to ‘fix’ in Photoshop. Remember the adage, garbage in, garbage out. Get in the habit of fixing the background before you even press the shutter button!

Your images will be better for it.

This article was written for the spring issue of This is the first issue of this magazine where we joined as contributors. Special thanks to our friend Dr. Ellen Rudolph for getting us involved.




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