Avoiding a Messy Background!

Images such as this have the background far enough away to blur, but still give a hint of the habitat beyond. This is how the Great Masters painted backgrounds with just a hint of the scene. Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500 @ f/4, ISO 50 © Donna Brok
Images such as this have the background far enough away to blur, but still give a hint of the habitat beyond. This is how the Great Masters painted backgrounds with just a hint of the scene. Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500 @ f/4, ISO 50 © Donna Brok

By Donna Brok

What the heck is a messy background, as opposed to a good one, and is it boring?

Support and enhance

First…backgrounds should support your subject not distract from it.

Photo of an eland. The background falls into colors and texture. The blowing dust adds ambiance. Nikon D850, 70-200 mm f/2.8, 1/1600 @ f/7.1, ISO 400 © Donna Brok
The background falls into colors and texture. The blowing dust adds ambiance. Nikon D850, 70-200 mm f/2.8, 1/1600 @ f/7.1, ISO 400 © Donna Brok

Scan your surroundings to decide what you would like to include and/or exclude from the frame. That includes how the background is shot to be included or blurred out. Is the background pleasing in color and does it work to support your subject? Is there debris you can move or eliminate? Is the background featureless? Much elimination can be done in camera!

There are a lot of questions to ask yourself before snapping that shutter. Now here’s a thought! Look at your background as important as the subject.

You may even look for backgrounds before finding the subject, and wait for it to enter your scene. The photo can be as much about the scene where your subject is found, as the subject itself. Be intentional and plan your shot.

Often images have uncomplimentary backgrounds or are too complex visually. Colors should support your subject and be visually stimulating to the image. Too many choose an unappealing point of view with elements intersecting the subject. Elements in the image have to work harmoniously with your subject. A photographer has to look at the image as a whole, not as separate or isolated parts.

Patience to wait for the subject to break away from the herd allows you to isolate it. You pick where you want as a background an wait. NIKON D850, 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500 @ f/4, ISO 50 © Donna Brok
Patience to wait for the subject to break away from the herd allows you to isolate it. You pick where you want as a background an wait. NIKON D850, 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500 @ f/4, ISO 50 © Donna Brok

Patience brings perfection

This is a perfect example of patience and a few other things. I just waited for the impala to walk by and leave the herd. The background was preselected. Eventually the subject will move. Bingo – isolated. There is a dust squall in the background giving my image a unique and emotive feel. Check – feeling. I let the background have prescience with lead room in the direction of travel. Obtained – nose room. The background is sufficiently blurred into color and form, but not so much you cannot imagine the place. Score – habitat!  Artists hint at what the background tells the viewer.

What distractions interfering with your subject? Try to remove or hide them by taking a few steps to the right or left, or change the aperture. Position yourself so the distracting object or objects become hidden behind your subject like the impalas here. Maybe too many subjects occupy the space like in this image. You have to move to hide as many as possible, and blur them without losing their presence and context.

There are numerous eland and impala in the frame. The distant impalas add depth, but really blend into the background. The story is the family has an extra calf! Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500 @ f/4, ISO 50 © Donna Brok
There are numerous eland and impala in the frame. The distant impalas add depth, but really blend into the background. The story is the family has an extra calf! Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500 @ f/4, ISO 50 © Donna Brok

You can WAIT for the right subject in the right place, doing the right thing.

Remember not to put a lot of atmosphere between you and your subject. If the subject is too far away, you will lose image quality.  Avoid heat diffraction too. It will definitely mess with the background. Get as close to the subject as is safe for you and the subject. It will help avoid atmospheric issues.

Some backgrounds are plain, some textured, and some purely landscape. You make the choice when you decide what will support your subject. Depth of Field increases when you are farther away, then you see more detail in the background. It is a creative choice when you set up your shot.

Cheetah lying on the grass. The background becomes “blobs” of cool color to complement our warm subject. One thing to notice in many images, the point of view was at the subjects level. This helps get a pleasing background too. Nikon D500, 500mm f/5.6E Pf, 1/500 @ f/7.1, ISO 1600 © Donna Brok
The background becomes “blobs” of cool color to complement our warm subject. One thing to notice in many images, the point of view was at the subjects level. This helps get a pleasing background too. Nikon D500, 500mm f/5.6E Pf, 1/500 @ f/7.1, ISO 1600 © Donna Brok

Foreground matters, too

Don’t forget about the foreground. It works to support, add weight and balance out the subject in the background. It helps to layer the image and give depth to your scene.

Leave in the contextual elements if they support your story.

Yes, blur is your friend. It really can isolate the subject. You might want the background to become just “blobs” of color and form. If it is just one smooth color, the image may become boring. Again make that choice coincide with the subject you are shooting.

Bright colors may be distracting or competing even if blurry. To help get that background to blur, the subject shouldn’t be positioned too close to whatever is behind them.

You can also blow out the background for a high key look. Or do the opposite with a light subject against a dark background to get an impactful shot. Contrast is your friend too.

The background has a hint of vines and earth. It shows the leopard leaving the cave in the cliff face. Warm and cool colors make the image stronger. Dodging and burning brought out what was important. Nikon D500, 500mm f/5.6E Pf, 1/640 @ f/5.6, ISO 360 © Donna Brok
The background has a hint of vines and earth. It shows the leopard leaving the cave in the cliff face. Warm and cool colors make the image stronger. Dodging and burning brought out what was important. Nikon D500, 500mm f/5.6E Pf, 1/640 @ f/5.6, ISO 360 © Donna Brok

With editing you can improve the background and make your subject stand out. You can work with what you have. If the background is very close, dodging and burning can help separate the two. Toning might improve the visual appeal. And of course, shallow DOF will blur out and soften the background to make your subject the focus.

With editing software, and skill using it, you could replace the background with something else if you have the right replacement image. You can darken the background to lessen distractions.

Photo of an elephant at a waterhole. The elephant was at the waterhole at 2:19pm conditions. Editing turned the wispy cloud and blue sky to something more interesting. A warm color was added over the clouds. Nikon D500, 70mm, 1/1600 @ f/9, ISO 500 © Donna Brok
The elephant was at the waterhole at 2:19pm conditions. Editing turned the wispy cloud and blue sky to something more interesting. A warm color was added over the clouds. Nikon D500, 70mm, 1/1600 @ f/9, ISO 500 © Donna Brok

The sky is the limit on how you approach a background. For instance, if need be, you can paint in a background or change the color tone, or add a layer of color and blend it in. But keep in mind, if entering competitions like NANPA’s Showcase, rules may dictate you do very little, so it is best to get a pleasing background in camera.

Donna Brok has been an artist and wildlife photographer for many years. A skilled teacher and presenter, she is a sought after speaker at camera clubs and conferences. She is also a judge for professional competitions and camera clubs and serves as the judging coordinator for the Niagara Frontier Regional Camera Clubs, an organization of 20 clubs in the US and Canada.