The Arty Blogness of Ansate Jones

The ABC’s of improving your photographic technique
ABC’s are a way overdone format for how-to articles, I know. It kind of happened by accident when I was writing up some photo tips and realized that the three most important elements of basic photography could be boiled down to:

A: Available Light

B: Background

C: Composition

If it sounds too easy, it kind of is. What I’m about to share with you are very basic principles that will end up being a lifesaver in your photography. And if it sounds too hard, don’t worry. I’ll go into more detail than you could ever want in later posts.

B: Background

Look, I can’t tell you how many pictures that could have been beautiful were ruined by poor planning when it comes to background. It seems to be something that happens to all of us: we get a sort of tunnel vision as photographers, narrowing in on the subject and completely forgetting to make sure the rest of the picture looks okay as well. But mark my words, people– background matters. And mistakes are usually so very, very simple to avoid. You just have to become skilled at seeing those mistakes before you make them. Ask yourself the following before snapping your photo:

Photobomb 101

Is there something distracting going on back there?

You could take the most beautiful model in the world and stick her in front of two bears doing it and you know what’s going to get the most attention. In all seriousness though, make sure that your background serves to accentuate your subject, not overpower it. It could be anything from something odd happening, to a busy clash of colors, to something more dramatically lit. Or it could be something that just doesn’t fit with what you want. Look at this portrait of my husband I took in front of Panera bread, just your typical quick travel shot to preserve memories or whatever. Why the hell did I take this picture in front of that ugly building? I will later undoubtedly ask myself when I am 90 years old and have forgotten I was writing this article. This will never go in an artist or model portfolio. The background ruins the entire thing.

And this is when we went to a chain restaurant you can find just about anywhere in the US!

Are you accidentally creating some kind of surreal collage?

Look, photographs tend to flatten no matter what depth of field you use. It’s a 2-D representation of the real world. This can be used for good, such as the table scene with Gandalf and Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring… or it could make your husband look like he’s growing a tree out of his head. Or folding up some woman into origami. Which, you know. Halloween. Whatever.

You're right, he is sort of a monster. Never mind.

So what can be done?

How can you combat these background problems? The simplest solution is to find another background for your picture. Sometimes this is really easy; you can just take a step to the left or right to get rid of that tree problem, for instance.


But what if, god forbid, you have something like this?

So bad I'm showing it twice.

The Panera Bread problem can’t be solved by a step to the left or right. But there’s other things you can do that are just as easy.

Simplifying the background

All I did here was move my husband against the wall of the building, which gave a nice solid colored background that allows the eye to feast on him in all his glory with no weird distractions.

Feast, you mortal fools! Feast on the glory that is pure, unadulterated Ken!

But let’s say you really want some context. Let’s say it really is a travel photo and you want to remember exactly where you were when you took this photo. Another solution?

Blurring the background

Simply stepping forward toward your subject or even just zooming in will make the background blurrier. These two options are technically due to two separate effects, but the result is comparable. If you really want to enhance the blurriness you can try changing the aperture settings on your camera. Aperture is your depth of focus setting, determining how far back you want the picture to be in focus. So a low aperture setting would make the background less in focus, while a high one would ‘flatten’ the subject into the background by making everything more in focus.

Same lens, different aperture settings and focal lengths (zoom settings).

One cannot blur a background by aperture alone

One caveat with aperture is that, no matter how low the setting is, focus carries into the background. What do I mean by that? Simply that things in front of your focal point are going to be far blurrier than things in back, even if they are the same distance from your subject. Example: if you take a closeup picture of someone holding an apple, with someone behind them holding an apple, but you focus on the face of the closer person, that first apple is going to be near unrecognizable, the subject’s face is going to be in sharp focus, the background apple will be slightly out of focus, and the background person will be a little less in focus than the apple, and so on. But of course the further back you go, the more blurry things will eventually get.

What this means, bluntly, is that you can’t usually solve your problem by just lowering the aperture setting.

Same lens, same distance, but different aperture.

See? You can see some blurring in the picture on the right, and Ken stands out a bit more, but barely a difference at all, because the Panera Bread background is, of course, in back of the subject. So what you need to do is get much closer to your subject than the background is, either by zooming or stepping forward. Then if you use the aperture settings you’ll start to see a big difference.

Fancypants lens party

If you want to get super fancy, and have the right sort of camera, you can try different lenses to change depth of field/focus. I took this picture with a prime lens, a lens with a fixed focal length that goes down to like 1.5 on the aperture setting or something (my normal lens only goes down to around 4.0-5.0).

The 50mm fixed prime lens means I had to stand even further back to take this picture. And it still has a blurry background!

Selective focus becomes a very fine thing the lower you go on aperture. But because of the fixed focal length the prime lens can’t zoom in or out, so you’re sort of stuck getting fairly close to your subject to get this effect.

I call this one on the right 'Ken's Chin'. Oh yeah, and I guess Ken's in there too.

You can also just try a zoom lens, which basically just zooms much further than your regular lens and gives you that depth of field you need between the subject and the background.

Same zoom lens and aperture, same zoom setting, but different distances from the subject.

Now that you know how to make your backgrounds work for your subjects, it’s time to move on to:

C: Composition

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  1. Pingback: » 8 Ways to Make Your Travel Photos Not Suck Hieratic

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