The fine art of choosing the right background to improve your photography

Chad Verzosa

Finding the right background to complement your subject is about more than just trusting your instincts. After all, your background can either make or break a photograph.

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Photo by Simon Alexander

While seemingly trivial, your background can either illuminate and add context to your subject or, just as easily, distract from it.

So, how do you decide which background is right for your photos?

01. Minimize distractions

If you look at some of the most famous artworks ever made, you’ll notice that their backdrops are often simple. So, it only makes sense that you'd want to keep things minimal for your photographs as well.

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Photo by Verne Ho

Always think of your background as the canvas of your painting. You want it clean enough that it isn’t distracting, and also clutter-free so that viewers focus intently on your subject.

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Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi

Look for a background that doesn’t feature too many colors or patterns. This not only keeps things clean, but also creates a visual contrast between your subject and their surroundings. 

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Photo by Matthew Henry

There are times, however, when too-clean backgrounds can make your subject appear as if they were superimposed. If this happens, try to find a backdrop with some texture to add dimension to your photo. For instance, if a concrete wall looks too blank, try shooting in front of a wooden fence or a vine-covered wall instead. Doing so adds not only adds depth, but also character to your work.

02. Explore negative space

Negative space (or the blank area surrounding your subject) plays an essential role in photo composition. You can use it to isolate your model from the rest of your image, which puts more of an emphasis on them.

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Photo by Rahul Anil

This 'visual breathing room' or bareness forces the eyes to focus on your subject as the main point of interest in your photo.

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Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra

Choosing a background that features negative space offers more flexibility when it comes to photo composition. Since you don’t have to worry about obstructing any other visual elements in your frame, you’re free to position your subject just about anywhere.

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Photo by Chad Verzosa

Another visual benefit of using backgrounds with negative space is that it allows viewers’ eyes to rest. If your image looks too busy, include a blank spot somewhere in the frame to make it easier to look at.

03. Pay attention to lines

Pay attention to the lines in your background; including the ones that outline buildings, lamp posts, and even the horizon.

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Photo by Aziz Acharki

If you wish to incorporate them into your image, make sure they don’t cut through your subject’s head, so your subject stands out. Instead, frame your photo in a way that places the line below or above their head.

04. Play with depth of field

If you can’t find a plain background, a great way to make it less distracting is by blurring it. Try using a shallow depth of field by setting your aperture somewhere between f/1.8 to f/2.8.

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Photo by Caleb Lucas

To make your background blur more cinematic, try including bright lights or repeating patterns since they look even more captivating when they’re all fuzzy. The Japanese word for this aesthetically pleasing background blur is 'bokeh,' and the technique is extremely popular among photographers.

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Photo by Reza Hasannia

Remember that farther you place the subject from the background, the greater blur you’ll get. This is particularly useful when the background you’re shooting apppears too busy.

05. Frame subjects with odd shapes

Backgrounds with distinct shapes can accentuate your image and make them appear more visually engaging. This is great for not only framing your subject, but also for bringing a sense of balance to your composition.   

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Photo by Craig Whitehead

You can neatly 'box in' your subject within squares or rectangles, like door frames or windows. You can also try looking for circles since the lack of angles make these shapes more soothing to the eyes. 

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Photo by Kasper Rasmussen

Triangles, on the other hand, can add symmetry to a photo. Always be on the lookout for out-of-the-ordinary shapes that you can experiment with.

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Photo by Redd Angelo

06. Look for patterns

People respond well to patterns because, subconsciously, the mind loves to put things in order. By choosing geometrically aligned backgrounds, you create a sense of balance and harmony in your photo.

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Photo by Courtney Clayton

However, it’s not really the structure of patterns, but rather how you break that sense of order, that catches viewers’ attention. All you have to do is place your subject in front of a patterned background to disrupt the sense of symmetry. 

07. Keep moving

Sometimes, finding the right background is just a matter of perspective. If you can’t seem to find the perfect spot, try shifting your angle higher or lower, or moving your subject a little bit to the left or the right.

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Photo by Meireles Neto

You can't always move your background, but as a photographer, you certainly can. Keep on your toes and always be on the move. You'll never know what you shot you might unconver.

08. Use the background as visual context

Use your background to tell viewers something about your subject. If you can’t keep away from distracting elements, try instead to use those elements to tell a story about your subject and to set the mood and tone of your shot.

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Photo by Lilibeth Linares

Many people think they need to go to exclusively scenic places to create beautiful photos, but that’s not necessarily true. There are more options out there than just blue skies. Take a walk around your neighborhood, and you’ll realize that there are a so many undiscovered scenes that you can use as potential backdrops.

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Photo by Mahkeo

Just keep your eyes peeled and your mind open, and you're sure to find something interesting along the way. With a bit of creativity, you'll find that even daily scenes, like parking lots or construction sites, have the potential to transform into beautiful backgrounds.