Photo Tip: Make Your Backgrounds Stand Out

For photojournalists sent to shoot politicians giving speeches or royals cutting ribbons, background is everything. The scene will be the same for every photographer there: a man at a podium; a little old woman with a pair of scissors. It will be moment the flag wafts over the President’s head or the child holds up a finger that makes the difference… and defines which image makes it onto the front page.

Just take a look at this shot by Ed Alcock of President Chirac for the New York Times (free reg req), and note how the subject is placed off-center to include the chandelier and the gilt. Instead of looking like a man of the people, the President looks lost in luxury.

For most photographers however, getting the background right is much simpler than waiting for the wind to blow or a kid to move. But it’s no less important.

While plain backgrounds will always make subjects stand out much more than busy settings, it’s just too easy to miss the telegraph pole that draws the eye or the tree that breaks the symmetry of the composition.

You spot the subject, snap the picture, feel you’ve caught the moment then look at the screen and just know there’s something wrong. Instead of the flower dominating the frame or the smile drawing the eye, the focus slips away to the side of the image.

Before you hit the button then, always take a second look. Don’t just look at the subject of the picture; look at the whole picture. Make sure that nothing in the background infringes on the subject of the image. Make sure that there’s a good tonal contrast so that your subject isn’t camouflaged. And be certain that a slight change of angle won’t give you a completely different effect.

Get the background right and you’ll be at least halfway to getting the picture right.

[tags]Photogrpahy, Backgrounds, Photo Tips[/tags]

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