The background you choose to include in the frame can make or break an image.
More often than not it is what you decide to exclude that will make the difference. A large elephant far in the distance which is rendered as a black blotch behind your image or a badly placed tree that is ‘growing’ out of your subject’s head. Apart from that what you decide to keep in the frame will dramatically change the content of the visual story you are telling.
Now there are photographers out there that believe you always need pure, silky smooth backgrounds when you shoot portraits of wildlife subjects and great as that approach might be it can sometimes lead to images that are quite plain and lack depth.
The above image shows a rather clean portrait with very few distracting elements. The very out of focus grass stem puts the image in context and you can kinda tell that this bird was photographed on the ground. Other than that it’s just a good, solid portrait of a vulture but it lacks a bit of depth which means it’s very difficult to tell a more intricate and deeper story about this subject.
By including a slightly different background to the scene you can not only create depth – one of the most difficult things to do in an image – but also tell a bit more of a story.
By including the shape of a Maribu Stork behind a similar subject I have created an image which is a bit deeper, both in perceived depth and story telling, than the first one. Even if you didn’t know that the shape and colours behind the vulture was another scavenging bird I’m sure you will agree that the image is a bit stronger than the first one and probably keeps your visual attention a little longer. Placing my vulture a little lower in the frame has also made the background, the Maribu, more intimidating which plays to my ultimate goal of telling a specific story.
So, which is the best approach when it comes to backgrounds?
Nope, doesn’t work like that in photography and I would personally steer clear of any photographer who says that there is only one way to do something in photography. Both approaches mentioned above are purely tools in your photographic toolbox which you can and should use as and when needed.
Yes, a silky smooth background can make for great portraits but don’t get caught in the trap of always using the same approach.
Yes, definitely bank the clean portrait but don’t stop there. Create depth in your images. Tell stories with your backgrounds.
Next time before you click the shutter quickly scan the frame and give a moment’s thought to how the background will affect your images.
Until next time.
Gerry van der Walt
* * *