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Background, Background, Background

Aug 17, 2007
Do you remember the old Saturday Night Live skit where Steve Martin and Bill Murray are standing there looking at something, which is off-camera, and they keep repeating "What the hell is that?". Have you ever looked at someone else's photographs, or even, god forbid, one of your own, and asked "What the hell is that?". There have been more than few occasions where I have taken, what I thought was an absolutely beautiful picture only to sit down and look at it later, then see something in the background that causes me to say 'What the hell is that?'. As a photographer this is not what I want to have happen.

Backgrounds have the potential to make or break a shot. For some subject matter, though, you do not have much control over the background. Such things would include sporting events. For example, I do about 99.99% of the photography for my sons soccer games. Some soccer pitches are perfectly even and beautifully landscaped in wonderful park like settings. Others seem to slope heavily to one side, as the players just disappear over the horizon. Some are simply left exposed to the elements. Another thing that I should mention about photographing sporting events is that you are often limited as to where you can be located. At many of my sons soccer matches, parents cannot be on the same side of the field as the players bench and be a certain distance away from the goals when sitting behind them. Any of these types of settings can limit or control what you can use for background.

As I started to say a few moments ago, backgrounds have the potential to make or break a picture. If you know that you will be shooting at a certain location at a certain time of day, please do yourself a favor and scout it out in advance. Remember, you will want to choose a background that is interesting and that will compliment your subject. A background the is too busy or has distracting elements (i.e. garbage cans, buildings, parking lots, etc.) can definitely take away from the desired result. Take test shots from different angles and with different exposures. Typically, a slightly diffused, natural background can add to the quality of your shot.

If you find that there are too many distracting artifacts in your background, try shooting with the lens wide open (f2.8 or f4.0). Doing this will blur the background, putting it out of focus, but please make sure that all elements of your subject stay in focus. In the case that this does not work, try to make the distractions work to your advantage. Incorporate them into your picture. Make them part of 'it' without making them 'it'.

Some people say that you look through your view finder and study your surroundings. What I like to do is take two steps back from the camera, stand up straight and look. Is there anything around me that my eye is drawn to? If so, I will have to determine how I can block it out or use it to enhance the shot.

Working with backgrounds can be tricky. Experimentation takes time, practice and patience. And if all else fails there is always cropping and Photoshop.

Happy snapping.
About the Author
Stephen Cornfield is a photographer who has several years experience photographing weddings, sporting and informal events. His company, Photo Field Imaging, www.photofieldimaging.com, also provides photo editing, restoration and scanning services for all types of photographs, film and slides.
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