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This is a Guest Post by Darlene Hildebrandt
There are many articles that talk about how to use compositional elements to create dynamic images with more impact, but very few ever talk about what not to do. In some cases it is just as, or even more important, so we’re going to look at three elements of composition that you want to watch out for, particularly in your backgrounds and how they can make or break your image.
Simple – they are as follows:
Each of those elements, when used expertly, allow you to guide the viewers eye where you want, ideally directly to your subject. But if you do not pay attention to these elements they can control the eye and make the viewer look where you do not want, such as the background, or all over the place. Here’s a few examples of both good and poor use of one or more of these elements:
The image above has a shallow depth of field so the viewer is first drawn towards the sharpest area, the leaves in the foreground. However, the background has a lot of contrast, vibrant colours, and is much brighter than the subject – so the eye is torn between looking at the sharp leaves and those things in the background. If you are not sure if you have a problem with bright spots in your background, a little trick you can try is turning the image (or your camera even) upside down. Then your eye will go where it wants to naturally, in this case right to the background. (see image below)
Here’s another image of virtually the same subject matter (the green leaves and flower bud) taken from another angle so that the background is not so distracting. Notice how the background being darker, and out of focus just fades away and you see the ones in the foreground more clearly. So simply by adjusting my camera position, and taking a close look at what is in the background I’ve got a much more successful image.
Okay so what about sharpness? As I mentioned above the eye is naturally drawn to those things that are sharp in the image, which is why you see so many images with very blurry backgrounds and why lenses like the 85mm f1.2 are so popular. But you don’t need a big, fancy expensive f1.2 lens to create nice “bokeh” (fancy word for blurry stuff in background). I’ve written a post about controlling your depth of field which can give you more information on how to create bokeh. Lens selection and proximity of the subject to the background also make a huge difference in the final image.
In the example below, the image was created with a 35mm lens (on a Canon 5D full frame camera) at f20. So there is a lot of depth of field and the background shrubs behind him are relatively sharp. The image appears very busy and the man is almost lost in all of it, save for the fact he has a brightly coloured shirt on he’d all but disappear.
By simply choosing a longer lens, moving him further away from the background, and selecting a wider aperture we can create a completely different looking image using the same background. Below you see the resulting image, shot with an 80mm lens at f2.8. He has also moved forward towards the camera a few feet, allowing for the background to be more out of focus. No matter what aperture you use, if your subject is close to the background you will never get the nice soft bokeh in the background you may desire. That can be achieved even with a lens whose maximum aperture is f4 or even f5.6. You’ll be amazed at how this little tip will change your images. Zoom in to a longer focal length (80mm or longer for people), back up, and have them step away from the background. Try it and post your results here for us to see!
Let’s look at another example. You will find the brightness and contrast tend to go together, where there is one you also find the other. That’s usually because brightness means that it is in the bright sunlight which inherently is a contrasty light source. So watch for bright areas in your background when you’re out shooting and try and get another angle that eliminates the bright hot spots that are so distracting. See below for two examples. You tell me which image features the fountain better? Which one has a simpler background? Which one has a distracting one that takes your eye away from the fountain?
Last example, two images from a wedding. Notice the first one has some very bright areas in the background. This is a common mistake that’s easy to fix. But please do it in camera, not in Photoshop or Lightroom. Endeavouring to get the image right as you take it is the road to better photography. The attitude of “I’ll fix it later” is in my opinion lazy and careless, when a few small adjustments will make a much stronger image. The couple is already in the shade, which is good for people photography, but the background is too busy, bright and takes your eye away from the couple.
By once again changing the camera angle and position of the subjects a much more pleasing, simple background is achieved. The higher camera angle helps eliminate the bright areas further in the distance and a higher angle is more flattering for most people anyway. Remember the KISS principal too, it works! Simplify, simplify, simplify!
I hope you find these tips helpful. Please add your comments and if you find value in this article please share it!
Find out more about Darlene Hildebrandt who is both a professional photographer and an educator. She sells her fine art images at art galleries and online, teaches aspiring amateurs, hobbyists and pros how to improve their photography skills through private tutoring, photo tours, and photography classes in Edmonton, AB, Canada. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook!