Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pictures vs. Photographs (Part 2)

Now that I have you rolling around on the ground, it is time to talk about backgrounds. While a close-up always makes a nice photograph, having something in the background of the main subject can add interest and a sense of time and place to an image. Think about that family vacation. A tight head shot would look the same at Disney World as one taken at the Grand Canyon. Have the Magic Kingdom in the background and even Aunt Maude will know where it was taken. How much detail that can be discerned in the background is a function of depth of field which is a topic we can tackle in a future entry. The mantra here is that the background should compliment, not distract from, the subject.

© David Toczko

Take a moment before firing off that shot to scan the background. Is there an unsightly sign you really don't want in the shot? Are there strangers wandering about nearby that could distract the viewer? The photo above is a good example. I wanted the view through the window included to give a sense of place to the image. Scanning the background just before I released the shutter, I noticed a man and woman walking down the road. Having them in the image would pull the viewer's attention away from the chairs and the cascading sunlight to what was going on in the background. My solution? Stop...take a breath and just wait for them to walk out of the shot. Five seconds of waiting saved me untold work on the computer later.

Try to move the objects out of the shot if possible. Have your subject move slightly or you can reposition yourself to avoid getting that trash can in the family reunion photo. In a more kinetic environment, such as a wedding where you are so focused on "getting the shot", it is nice to have an assistant literally looking over your shoulder with the expressed purpose of being on the lookout for such things. Those flowers on the altar are beautiful, but pose a bride in front of them and they will appear to be growing out of her head in the final image.
Don't rely on post-production editing to do this for you unless absolutely unavoidable. How many times have you heard, "Oh, you can just Photoshop that out."? Editing background clutter takes time, a lot of time and in more cases than not, creates its own set of problems with the image. Take the before and after comparison below as an example. (You can click on the images for a larger version) There are a host of problems related to background and foreground with the first image. A woman is in the window across the street, a car is passing out of view on the street, an ashtray and traffic cone are in the foreground. What a mess! After about an hour of work in Photoshop, those issues were resolved in the second image. Take the few extra seconds when you are framing the shot and do "Pre-Production Editing".

In the real-time world, our mind focuses on the point of interest and we don't often see what may be in front of or behind that point. In the split second timelessness of a photograph, those items can ruin an otherwise wonderful image. We are working against human nature, but with time, patience and practice, this simple step can become second nature and will help create memorable photographs.

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