Seven Tips For Making Better Pictures By Paying Attention To The Background

Kisskadee Photo by Scott Bourne

Seven Tips For Making Better Pictures By Paying Attention To The Background

It’s easily the most important lesson I learned in photography – how to make better photos by controlling the background.

I am a background fanatic. Some photographers talk non-stop about low-light performance, or color saturation or sharpness…for me it’s all about that background.

I have walked away from some pretty nice photographic subjects because I didn’t like the background. It always bugs me to the point of exasperation if I can’t find a decent background for my subjects.

I’ve prominently mentioned the background in most presentations or workshops where I’ve spoken and in most of my books, because I think it’s very important.

If you’re like me, and you want better backgrounds here are seven tips for getting better photographic backgrounds.

1. Get Close Part I

One of the simplest ways to improve your background is to eliminate most of it. The closer you are to your subject, the more of the subject we will see and the less of the background we will see.

2. Get Close Part II

As camera to subject distance DECREASES, depth-of-field also decreases. This means that if you are close to your subject, there is going to be shallower depth-of-field. Shallower depth-of-field means that the area in front of and behind your subject will appear out of focus. Out of focus backgrounds are often more pleasing to the eye.

Black-crested titmouse Photo by Scott Bourne

3. Increase Subject To Background Distance

If you want the subject of your photos to pop; to separate from the background, make sure to adequately distance your subject from the background. The further from the background the better.

In the case of portraits, I try to maintain a minimum subject-to-background distance of six to 10 feet. More is better when possible. Of course focal length, lighting and lens aperture play a part in how the results look, but by having a long subject to background distance starting point, you increase your chances for a pleasing result.

4. Use Telephoto Lenses

The longer your focal length, the more shallow your depth-of-field. If you use a 400mm lens, even at f/5.6-f/8, most of the background will disappear if there’s any distance at all between your subject and the background, or if you are relatively close to the subject or both.

Northern Mockingbird Photo by Scott Bourne

5. Large Apertures

Use a large aperture (smaller number) to soften up your background and help highly your subject by drawing all attention to it rather than the background.

6. Change Your Point Of View

Right before you press the shutter button, double check the frame to make sure nothing clutters the background and steals your subject’s thunder. If it does, slightly change your point of view (up/down/left/right) in order to fix the problem. For instance, shooting up on the subject often allows you to use the plain sky as a background.

Cardinal Photo by Scott Bourne

7. Scout The Background First

This is the most radical of my tips, but the one I have the most success using. I often find the background I want FIRST – then I wait for the subject to come into the background and shoot. This obviously doesn’t apply to all forms of photography, but as a bird photographer – it applies for me. Your mileage may vary.


You can also do lots of cool tricks in post to soften or clean up your background and I didn’t mention any of those because frankly, my preference is to get it right in the camera.

My way takes a little more work, but for me at least, is a little more satisfying. Good luck.

Picture Methods has partnered with Hunt’s Photo & Video to bring you the best gear at a competitive price and backed by personal service. Call Alan Samiljan at 781-462-2383 or Noah Buchanan at 781.462.2356. If you cannot reach either one try Gary Farber at 781-462-2332. You will ALWAYS get the best prices if you call the store v. Using the web site. You can also email Noah at: or Gary at: Hunt’s has been around a long time and you can trust them. Make sure to mention that Scott Bourne sent you. That will get you the best deal.

One Response

  1. Great photos!

    Number 7 on this list is my downfall. I like taking photos of birds but if I’m out in nature I want to be hiking, not waiting for the birds to come to me. As a result, I’ve got plenty of pictures of beautiful birds in less than ideal locations. Good thing photography is just a hobby for me…

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