Oct 24 2008

Junk in the Trunk – Background Faux Pas

As a photographer, I am always trying to create an image that conveys the mood, the feeling or the emotion at an event. It is not an absolute, but one of the best ways to get a viewer off subject is to distract them from the subject with trash in the background or a poorly framed subject.

With landscape photography junk in your trunk is not usually an issue as the background IS the image you want. However, when shooting people, animate or detailed objects the background effect can make or break the image. One of the easiest ways to botch an otherwise nice photo is to have too little or too much going on in the background. Just the right amount of bokeh, underexposure or the lack of clutter can really make an image pop. Today, I am going to focus on the clutter.

The best tip I have for you when taking your own pictures is simply to be highly aware of the background. This awareness comes only with practice as job number one in photography is to focus on the subject, literally. There are two main things you need to be aware of. First, get the garbage out of the photo. Literally, at weddings I often find myself moving a McDonald’s cup, an open and scattered shoebox or plate full of crumbs out of the way to get a better photo. Even if the trash is only fraction of the image area it will stick out. Sometimes, especially if it is small, you can fix the trash issue during post-processing, but less time spent fixing pictures allows for more time shooting them.

If you can crop the trash out of the frame by zooming or stepping closer to eliminate the offending object, do it. When you can, move your subject to a location with fewer distractions in the background. Inside you generally want as few things behind the subject as possible. It is so easy to forget what is there. Try to train yourself to notice and remove extra toys, nicknacks, etc. Television screens are terrible in pictures. By the same token you do not want a plain white wall behind the subject either. The background should be of neutral interest, not devoid of interest.

The image above was an impromptu shot when I called to the bride to turn and look at me for one second. Obviously, I could not change the background. With this image you can see that in post-processing I cropped out the horizontal horizon and removed the bench and railing on the left. This left a nice diagonal line guiding the eye from the bottom right of the image up through to the bride. Ideally, I would remove the light pole which shoots though the tail of the vail but that bit would take me quite a while to remove.

Second, especially when shooting outside, be careful to position yourself or your subject so that you don’t get passing cars or nothing but sky in the background. Even worse are tall objects directly behind your subject. A building, a pole, or a tree can all too easily look like an extra appendage, an impalement or a bad costume.  More often than not the effect will be undesirable and sometimes even offensive.