Simplify Your Background for More Powerful Compositions in Photography

Simplify Your Background for More Powerful Compositions in Photography

As I head into the new year of photography, I’ve taken the opportunity to think a lot about composition and how it relates to my photography and to photography as a whole. It is true that every picture has a composition, whether the creator intended it or not. Some spend much of their time thinking on how to compose, others do it instinctively, and others pay very little heed to it. Whatever your approach is, your photographs do have a composition, and it is worth considering how it affects the way your images are interpreted.

I do not consider composition something that I spend a great deal of time focusing on personally. I know the types of compositions I like in my own work and I use them often to express the ideas I wish to share. However, on each and every shoot, I am always conscious that a variety of compositional techniques will lead to a variety of images I can present. Those visual styles will draw different audiences and different emotions. 

Perhaps it is also important to note that I consider this from the perspective of a people photographer. The subjects of my photographs are almost always people or the changes to the world that people have wrought. I am in no way a nature or landscape photographer. Thus, the techniques in this article may have limited use in those genres. 

With those things in mind, and with the knowledge that these are guidelines intended to make a single photograph stronger, let’s get going. A single photograph can really only say one thing at a time and so should be treated that way. A series needs varied compositions, and we will delve into more of those in the coming weeks. For today, let’s look at simplifying your background as a compositional technique to draw focus to your subject. 

Find a Simple Background

This may be the easiest way to simplify your background in many cases: looking around for a simple background. Placing your subject against a single color, single tone, not heavily textured or patterned background can really help them to stand out and focus your viewer on what you want them to look at.

Look around your area and try to find something like the above. Sometimes it might not be immediately obvious, especially if you’re trying to look wide. Consider switching to a tight lens and using only part of the scene where there are no distractions. Also consider that although repeating patterns or strong features will stand out and make a background more complex, small cracks in concrete or subtle variations on tone will still read effectively as a monotone background. 

Change Your Angle

One thing I love to do when a background gets too cluttered is to get down low and use the sky as a background if I can. Similar to the above technique, this gives you an uncomplicated background. A blue sky will give you a monotone background to work with, as will an overcast one. A few clouds here and there might offer a way to balance your subject, or a storm might offer the drama you need to set the image apart. 

With all of these options that simply lowering your angle can offer, it’s certainly worth giving this a try any time you’re stuck for a composition. In the composition below, I was looking to eliminate the city in the background, so getting down low allowed me to do that and also use the simple background of the blue sky. 

Use Shallow Depth of Field

Another fairly straightforward way to simplify a cluttered background is to use shallow depth of field. By choosing a wide aperture like f/1.4 or f/2 and getting close to your subject (or by using a telephoto lens), you’ll be able to blur the busy parts of your image and make them seem less important. 

Human eyes will generally gravitate to things that are sharp and of high contrast (in this case, your sharp subject) before those where low contrast and softness are present (in this case, your blurry background). Using this to draw attention to your subject can allow even the busiest background to distract less from your subject. The below image is exactly the same scene, but the mess of grass has become a simple swatch of color by using a wide aperture. 

Use a Long Exposure

If you find yourself in a scene that is busy with moving objects, perhaps the way to simplify the background is to not allow it to render sharp. Similar to using shallow depth of field, this technique will allow you to make some parts of your scene sharper than others. 

Let’s say, for example, you’re shooting a couple on a busy city street. You’ve made a couple of frames that show the masses of people and the chaos of the scene. You’ve used shallow depth of field to bring the focus onto your couple and you’ve got a shot that feels like a “Where’s Wally” book. Now, let’s slow that shutter down to around 1/4 or 1/2 a second and have the couple stand still. Now you’ve simplified the background by blurring all the people and bringing the viewer's attention right to the couple, who are sharp because you instructed them not to move. 

In the photo below, there were many faces in the crowd, and as we know, human eyes are drawn to faces. By blurring the ones I don’t want you to see, I am able to focus your attention on the ones I do want you to see.

Use Light

Light can be powerful at bringing a scene back to only what you want to show. Remember that our digital sensors and film only allow certain amounts of light to be captured for a given exposure. Any more or less will render dark, bright, or not at all. You can use this to your advantage. 

Placing your subject in a shaded area with a much brighter background can allow you to overexpose that background and draw less attention to it. Conversely, the same is true of placing your subject in light much brighter than what is hitting the background. Exposing properly for your subject, in either case, will result in the attention being drawn to the subject. 

In Conclusion

These five ways of approaching composition are just that: methods. They give us something to draw on when a scene is too complex and ideas to approach the simplification of that scene. Of course, there are infinite ways of doing this and every scene is different. Sometimes these techniques won’t be effective for the scene in front of you and you’ll need to draw on other methods. Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to look at different methods that I employ as I’m out in the field. Keeping that in mind, I hope you’ve enjoyed these techniques so far. Catch you next week!

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Andy Day's picture

Such a simple concept that gives immediate results. Some great advice here.

WIllmar Sandoval's picture

Be careful with a lot of distraction on your backgrounds