Sue Barthelow's

Articles For Photographers




Too Much Detail
Too Much Detail

Simplified and Blurred
Simplified and Blurred Background

Distracting Background
Distracting Background

No Competition
No Competition


Close-ups and Portraits

Don't Let Your Background Compete for Attention

by Sue Barthelow

Lately, I've been taking pictures of flowers in the garden and in the wild. Flowers, close-ups and portrait images are similar beasts. The subject always looks better when the background doesn't compete with it. A distracting background can turn a great picture into a mediocre one. There are three main things that cause the background to attract attention - busyness, coloring and lighting.

Busy Backgrounds

One way to simplify a busy background is to use a wide-open aperture to throw it out of focus. There are 4 ways to do this. 1) Use your camera's portrait mode. 2) Use your camera's macro mode. 3) Use aperture priority and set it to a low number. 4) Use a macro/micro lens. If you don't know how to set and use programmed and aperture priority camera settings, check your manual or ask a fellow photographer who has a similar camera.

The more distant the background is from the subject, the easier it is to blur. If there is plenty of room between the subject and the background, you can get more depth of field for your subject by using an aperture that brings more of it into focus while still blurring the background.

Don't forget to watch out for distracting background objects that seem to grow out your subject. For example, you don't want a pole growing out of a person's head. Can't keep something out of the picture but have a digital image? Use an image editor like Photoshop and remove it using the computer.

Competing Background Colors

When you're setting your shot up, look through the viewfinder to see how background colors complement or distract from your subject. When the background colors draw your attention away from the subject or clash in color, your image will suffer. You may be able to move a little to one side to improve the background. If not, look for another subject in the case of a flower, or move your subject to another spot with a better background.

If you have a digital image, you can dull background colors using an image editor to save an otherwise good picture.

Background Lighting

Contrast between your subject and the background is necessary. A bright subject stands out better against a darker background and a dark subject stands out better in front of a lighter background.

On the other hand, high contrast in the background attracts attention and should be avoided. Bright areas within darker regions draw your eyes away from the subject. Try to compose your shot to minimize bright areas in a dark background. The same holds true for dark areas within lighter regions. You can darken or lighten background areas in a digital image using an image editor.

Example Photos

Notice how the poppy photo improves by getting closer to the flowers to simplify the image and then slightly blurring the background. The image improves even more when going closer and filling the frame with fewer flowers while keeping some of the foliage as a background.

Although an interesting image, the iris picture with the light and dark background shows how a background can compete with the subject. Moving to another flower, the dark background allows the subject to command all attention.


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