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Control the Background in Photography

control the background in photography

Knowing how to control the background in photography is an essential skill whether you’re shooting in nature or doing product photography in a studio.

In bad cases, poor attention to background could mean an awkward lamppost sticking out of grandma’s head. It could also mean a product disappears amidst a mass of confusing details.

Controlling the background can involve physically changing the background, adjusting angle and composition, adjusting camera settings or equipment, and adjusting the lighting.

We’ll go through these areas step by step to help you figure out the elements that you can reasonably control.

Be Aware of the Background

Casual and new photographers often forget about the background.

A well-lit and beautiful subject in the foreground can be lost if the background is clashing, too contrasted, or has distracting bright areas in focus.

If you don’t take the time to be patient and experiment, you’ll just end up with snapshots that fall short of your goal: sharing what you create with your audience or customers.

Choosing a Background

The background gives context to the subject of your photograph. Think about what mood or story you want to convey.

Photography Backdrops

how to control the background in photography

The surest strategy is always to use an All-White backdrop. This allows you to produce a clean result without distractions.

White backdrops are versatile. You can shoot a range of food dishes or products without having to worry about color clashes.

There are also a number of colored or textured backdrops you might want to use. Common examples include woods, Slate, or Marble. These are some of the commonly used surfaces for product photography.

The best size backdrop for photography will depend on how wide of a shot you want. Go large if you’ll be shooting people. If shooting products or food, 23 x 23 inches has been proven to be the optimal size for most scenes since it's large enough to give you space for props, while still being easy to store and transport. All Replica Surfaces are that size for this reason.

Creating a "room" with backdrops

can you control the background in photography

You might, however, be shooting in a natural context, indoors or outdoors.

Food photography is best against a background of kitchenware or other table settings. Your model might be shot against the woods or hills outdoors.

Generally, you want to select the background elements to avoid competition for the viewer’s attention. In other words: reduce distraction while including just enough props to interest your viewer's eye.

Choose a background that doesn’t have strong contrasts or colors that don’t complement your subject. The best color backdrop for clothing photography is a complementary color that you can find using a color wheel.

When these distractors are unavoidable, you can turn them into features using composition and background blurring. We will look at those two areas next.

Angles and Composition of the Background

So, you have your subject and backdrop. Now you need to think about how to use the background to highlight your subject.

Angles

While there are many angles to choose from when shooting food or products (well, 90 of them), some are more effective than others in showing your product's best attributes. Which angle you choose will determine whether you use one backdrop or two, and how much of your backdrop is visible in your photo.

To learn our favorite 3 angles and when to choose one or the other, this video is for you!

Leading the Eye with Lines

You may be familiar with the striking compositions of portrait photography in tunnels. Here, photographers have used the details of the background to draw the eye toward the subject.

These are called leading lines. You don’t always need to try and neutralize a background when you can use the elements to guide the viewer’s eye.

Of course, these issues don’t apply to things like portrait photography with white background. But, this does apply if you have a textured background. For example, cracks in a wall can be used to draw the eye rather than be a distraction.

You can also create implied lines by placing props in a diagonal, straight, or curved line. Here, we place props to create a C-shaped curved line.

how you should control the background in photography

We show you how to create this C-shape and an eye level diagonal line step-by-step in this video. Both line types work for food or product photography.

Fill the Frame

To keep the focus on your subject, it's helpful to fill the frame with your subject. This makes it look majestic. In this cake photo, the photographer cropped in relatively closely so that the cake fills most of the frame.

how can you control the background in photography

You will still need to put some thought into composition, but a single (or couple) background and foreground props are all you need. Here, we placed two related props in the back corner and a lemon slice and sprig of lavender in the opposite front corner. This is call the "diagonal composition" by the way, which we show you how to create here.

You can also fill your frame afterward by digitally cropping your images.

This technique is maximized by combining it with a blurred background. See how the Subway Tile backdrop is out of focus? We’ll explain what all that means in the next section.

You'll also want to consider investing in a quality backdrop (or a few) to make controlling the background that much easier. Replica Surfaces has a range of stunning backdrops, from clean White Subway Tiles to Natural Walnut. There are plenty of options to suit your needs.

Background Blurring

Background blurring is one of the most common techniques used in photography to keep the focus on your subject.

This involves manipulating the aperture settings and, thus, the depth of field. You can sharply focus your subject while leaving the background and foreground out of focus. This removes most of your background's texture and makes your background just a wash of color

What is Depth of Field?

Depth of field is the amount of space in focus in your photo.

Landscape photographers want as much to be in focus as possible. They use a "wide" or "deep" depth of field.

However, a "narrow" or "shallow" depth of field will allow you to blur the background and keep all the focus on your subject.

The possibilities with this are endless. The ability to turn a tree into a wash of green means you can take your photography almost anywhere outdoors.

how you can control the background in photography

In food and product photography, it's important to blur the background. How much you choose to blur it is a matter of preference! In this dessert glass photo, the background is quite blurred. You can see how the backdrop doesn't have much texture anymore and the middle dessert is out of focus. This keep the viewer's attention on the right-most dessert glass which is fully in-focus.

you should control the background in photography

Similarly, blurring the background allows you to neutralize strong contrasts or bright sources of light. These contrasts get blended in with the surrounding background when they are cast out of focus.

How to Control Depth of Field

Adjusting Aperture

Aperture is one of the primary three camera settings that photographers of all skill levels should be familiar with. The other two are the ISO and shutter speed. The best news? You can blur the background with a phone camera too, so keep reading!

Think of the camera as an eye. When in darkness, your pupil goes large to let in lots of light. When it’s bright, your pupil gets smaller. Aperture is the equivalent of how wide the “pupil” on your camera is.

Widening the aperture is a way of increasing the amount of light in your photo. It’s also a way of making the depth of field shallower, which makes the background blurrier.

Aperture is measured in f-stops. Lower f-stops lead to shallower fields of view and therefore blurrier photos. For example, f/2 is shallow (and blurrier) while f/11 is deeper (and more in-focus).

You can even make your aperture so shallow that you can have someone’s eyes in focus with the tip of their nose out of focus. So be careful that you don’t overdo it and lose your subject along with the background. This is true for food and product photos too, since super blurry backgrounds cause you to lose background detail and visual interest.

To blur the background with a phone, use portrait mode. To learn all about how to use portrait mode, we created this how-to for you.

Increasing Subject-Background Distance

The background might still be in focus with a shallow aperture (low f-stop) or portrait mode if it’s too close to the subject. This means that there isn’t sufficient distance to distinguish the foreground from the background.

So, to increase background blur: Move your subject further away from the background. Make sure you subject is at least 6 inches in front of your backdrop. We show you how to position your objects and blur the background in this video:

iPhone Portrait Mode

to control the background in photography

The above points might not apply to you at all if you don’t have a DSLR or a similar-quality camera.

Not to despair though: portrait mode allows you to configure all sorts of lighting and background blur options.

This is all done digitally, though. The effects are not quite as crisp as a manually configured photograph. Still, the results are impressive and getting even better with every new phone model.

Lighting

A final crucial skill for controlling the background is lighting.

If you’re fortunate to have access to the best photography backdrop and lighting kits, then there’s plenty to play with.

Here are just two suggested techniques:

Backlighting

Backlighting is an industry-standard technique for separating a subject from the background.

This involves having a separate light source positioned behind the subject and out of frame (often above).

This lighting from behind can create a halo effect. This can allow you to highlight a dark object against a dark background. It can also give a halo effect to the hair of a portrait model.

Perfect White Background Cut-Outs

A go-to and versatile technique is knowing how to get a perfect white background in product photography. This is a staple of eCommerce websites.

Unlike backlighting, to achieve this, you want your light pointed at your background. An evenly lit and clean white background will instantly make your subject pop out.

Final Thoughts

A quality background is essential to a well-rounded photograph.

Controlling background begins with awareness. Select your background thoughtfully and experiment with angles and composition. 

Techniques of background blurring and lighting will allow you to separate the subject of your photograph from the background.

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