Lighting & Composition Outdoor

Nature Photography – Tricks for controlling the background of your images


Images are most pleasing when the background is uncluttered and doesn’t compete with the subject for the viewer’s attention. Distracting backgrounds are enormous problems in the images of beginning photographers and occasionally even those of more experienced shooters. Normally, it is best to seek a background that is a homogeneous color and is slightly darker than the subject. A bright background behind the subject is distracting and unappealing. Naturally, there are exceptions. A tree or animal silhouetted against a spectacular rosy sunset makes an outstanding image, and the sky is clearly the brightest portion of the image. An appropriate background is often an out of focus meadow, forest, blue sky, or water. Avoid backgrounds where the horizon line passes through the subject. I’ve seen far too many images of animals where the horizon line cuts through the head or neck. Try for all sky or all meadow backgrounds. Controlling the background is crucial for capturing compelling images with ease as well as consistency. Let’s look at several key tricks for controlling the background.

Too many photographers go on a once-in-a-lifetime safari to Kenya and photograph everything from the roof hatch of their safari vehicle. This high viewpoint works fine for the larger animals like elephants and giraffes, but the smaller animals and birds on the ground aren’t nearly as appealing when this high aerial viewpoint is used. When photographing the smaller animals like this Kirk’s dik-dik, use the lowest vehicle window to bring you closer to the animal’s height to produce a more intimate image. Nikon D300, Nikon 200–400mm lens at 340mm, ISO 1600, f/4, 1/1000 second, Cloudy WB, aperture-priority.

1. Select a shooting angle in which the background is a uniform color and evenly lit.

2. Use a longer focal length lens. The angle of view, and thus the field of view, diminishes as the focal length increases. It can be difficult to capture a photogenic background with a 50mm lens because the angle of view is wide, but a 500mm lens has such a small angle of view that you have to work hard to make the background look horrible.

3. Shoot using apertures in the range of f/2.8 to f/5.6 to allow the shallow depth of field obtained with these apertures to keep the background out of focus.

4. When shooting close-up images, it is easy to insert an out of focus background behind the subject. Shoot some images of flower groups that are completely out of focus, make a print of the unfocused flowers, and insert the print behind the subject. The background remains out of focus even when you stop down to f/22 to photograph the subject.

5. Find a subject where the background is farther away. If you have two equally good flower blossoms but one has other objects 1 foot behind it and the other has nothing behind it for 20 feet, the second one with the more distant background will have a more diffused background at all apertures.

6. Use focus stacking to minimize background distractions. Selective focus is a popular technique for isolating a single subject—a flower blossom for example—amid other flowers that may be in both the foreground and the background. It requires you to shoot using the f/ stops on your lens that have the shallowest depth of field. The maximum aperture on the lens—f/2.8 or f/4 in most cases—provides the least amount of depth of field. Of course, even when you shoot using the maximum lens aperture, the depth of field most likely still will not cover the single blossom either. If you want the primary subject to be completely sharp while keeping the foreground and background as unfocused as possible, use focus stacking. Set the lens to the maximum aperture. Now focus on the leading edge of the flower and shoot the image. Focus slightly deeper into the flower and shoot another image. Keep this up until you shoot the final image in which the rear of the blossom is sharply in focus. Take this stack of images and run it through focus stacking software. The blossom will be completely sharp while the foreground and background remain out of focus.

Calypso orchids grow on damp hillsides in the forest during June near Island Park, Idaho. Since they stand only about 7 inches tall and live amid many other plants, the small orchids are usually photographed with a chaotic background. This would have been the case here, too. Fortunately, a photographic background that I deliberately shot out of focus for hummingbird photography doubled nicely to use as a clean background about 6 inches behind this gorgeous group of orchids. I focus stacked this group of blossoms by shooting nine images to achieve the ultimate in depth of field and overall image sharpness. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 180mm macro lens, ISO 100, f/8, 1/10 second, Cloudy WB, manual focus and exposure, Helicon Focus software merged the images.

7. When you have an opportunity to select a more suitable background, be sure to take advantage of it. When I am directing my driver in Kenya, I determine the location to stop by taking existing light into consideration, the clear open path to the animal in mind, closeness to the subject, and the available background choices. If you move the subject around—perhaps a potted flower, horse or child—always pick a spot where the background is pleasing. When photographing a wildflower, often a Plamp can be used to slightly bend the stem forward or backward without harming the flower to achieve a more pleasing background because it allows a different shooting angle.

Obviously, there are many ways to control the background. It is important to prevent the background from ruining the image. Once you find a potential subject, always consider the background and do what is necessary to subdue it. Your images will benefit from your foresight!

Yellow-bellied marmots commonly rest on rocks near the summit of Mt. Evans in Colorado during late June. Once when I found an individual marmot who did not mind being approached closely, I selected a shooting viewpoint that would produce an uncluttered background. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens, ISO 400, f/11, 1/400 second, shutter-priority, auto-focus using the back-button control.


Once you have controlled the background, always scan the edges, especially all four corners, of the image for unsightly distractions. Chaotic lines and bright blobs—whether in focus or not—are common distractions that are never beneficial to the image. Try to eliminate them by selecting a different shooting angle or by physically removing them from the image, which is often called gardening. In close-up photography, removing offending distractions is easy and quick. Admittedly, cleaning up a less than desirable background can be done with software such as Photoshop. When photographing larger objects, moving the shooting viewpoint is usually necessary.

Excerpt from Digital Nature Photography: The Art and the Science, 2nd Edition by John & Barbara Gerlach © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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