Background Basics for Wildlife Photography

Background Basics for Wildlife Photography

One of the most desirable qualities in a wildlife photograph is having good separation between the animal and the background. Here’s a simple breakdown on how to achieve this with any camera and lens.

Last year when I switched from my Canon 500mm f/4 lens to the Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3, there was a little bit of hesitancy due to the difference in f-stop regarding my ability to create separation and isolate subjects. As it turned out, there really was no difference in the way I approached a scene. What makes a good photo is universal across cameras and lenses, and any effort given towards creating separation produces similar results. Whether you’re using a full-frame camera or Micro Four Thirds, or an expensive prime telephoto lens or one that respects your limited budget, there are really only a few main factors to keep in mind when it comes to soft backgrounds that lets your sharp subject stand out.

Main Factors

Two of the main factors for determining separation in an image is the distance from the camera to your subject, and the distance from your subject to your background. In some circumstances, another factor is the distance from the objects in the foreground to your subject. Simply put, it’s best to be close to your subject with the camera, and it’s best for the subject to be far away from its background and foreground.

It’s important to note that these factors all play off each other as well. Getting the optimum distance in one will relax the need for an optimum distance in another. For example, if you’re really lucky and are very close to a bird, that means it’s much less important that the bird is far away from its background to create a pleasing separation. If you can’t approach an animal closely, that means the distance between the animal and its background needs to be increased even more to create separation.

In this example, both the distance from the foreground to the subject and the subject to the background are balanced with enough separation to isolate the Sandhill Crane in the grass.

The angle you photograph animals can make or break this separation as well. Even with unlimited separation between the subject and background, if you’re up higher than the animal and pointing your lens angled down at it then the real separation is only between the animal and a few feet behind it where the ground is. By simply getting yourself lower in this situation while staying in the same spot, the separation increases dramatically for a much cleaner image. For some animals in certain situations you may prefer to be lower than eye level which will place their head above the horizon line with their body below, creating cohesion in the photo.

Between the quality and direction of light and the factors above, these are some of the very first things a wildlife photographer takes in from a scene before them. From there, photographers will follow up with decisions in order to be at the right place at the right time.

While taking this photo, I was quite far from the Wood Duck and at the same time it was close to the background. There is not much separation happening here.

Other Factors

Even with the above factors thought out, there are still some other considerations that can affect how much distance is necessary. These include the cloud cover, the time of day and its corresponding angle of light, any atmospheric conditions like rain or fog, and unfortunately yes, a little bit the quality of the lens optics.

Whether the scene is under cloud cover or direct lighting can affect how much contrast is in the background, which can affect how hard it is to smoothen out and create less distraction. Under direct sun, the angle of light also plays into the contrast of a scene and needs to be accounted for with distance. On the other hand, atmospheric conditions like rain or fog will make the background distance required for separation much less demanding as it washes away clarity, however it becomes more important to get closer if you want to retain contrast on the subject.

For this photo, I was far from my Sandhill Crane subject but at the same time the crane is also very far from the background. Even though I couldn't get closer, the distant background helped to ensure separation.

Lens quality also comes into play and can be a little more tricky to solve. With some cheaper lenses, out-of-focus backgrounds will still contain hard edges instead of cleanly blurring away. Distance can only solve it so much before it becomes impractical to find any location suitable. In these instances, it’s best to work on field craft that gets you close as you can safely be to your subject which in turn limits the field of view of the background; You can’t have hard edges if there are no hard edges within the limited field of view to start with.

Conclusion

If you’re thinking to yourself, “This sounds really hard and I don’t know of any place where I can do this,” then you are not wrong. This is one of the main struggles in wildlife photography and it might require you to search out new spots. No wildlife photographer expects to just go out to any random place where their animal is and capture great images. Just because the animal you want to photograph is in a certain location does not mean that the location is appropriate for a good photo no matter where you stand. It can take a great deal of time to find great spots inside habitats to the species you’re after, and have it all come together while being there at the right time with the best light.

This is an example of foreground-to-subject separation. By photographing this Song Sparrow with foreground foliage very close to the camera, there was still enough separation to isolate the bird without distracting elements.

When these moments do happen though — believe me, with enough patience they do — it’s the ultimate reward. No one said it was going to be easy, but with these basic separation tips in mind you will start to see opportunities in the landscape that drive where to position yourself for your best photos yet.

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1 Comment

Tom Reichner's picture

Ryan,

I am really thankful for articles like this, that are more about composition and the aesthetics of an image, and not about gear and settings. The other article that you posted was great, too - the one about the sea wolves of British Columbia. The reason I liked that so much is because it is about the subjects themselves, instead of being about the gear and settings.

Thank you for producing content that focuses on the most important part of wildlife photography.

As far as the backgrounds are concerned, you are right in saying that the background is an extremely important part of a wildlife photograph. And you are also right in saying that it is mostly about the relative distances between the subject, camera, and background elements, and not so much about the aperture or focal length that we shoot at.

Great stuff, and I especially love the gorgeous forest background in that Sandhill Crane image that you posted - those distant tree trunks are rendered in such a gorgeous fashion! It makes the photo an ethereal environmental portrait - and it is superlative!