We are told very early on in our photographic careers, if we are lucky, that the background of any shot is as important as the subject itself. It sounds odd of course, as we want people to look at the subject rather than what is behind it. However, like many of the rules and laws we are taught when we begin anything it takes time and a good dose of experience before we really understand them. The danger though is that during the period between being told the rules and being in a position to understand them we often forget about them completely. So, this is a little reminder about the importance of finding a good background.

At the forefront of the mind most photographers is the principle that a good background should not distract from the subject. That’s quite right of course, but it isn’t enough to just monitor the area behind the subject for elements that might draw the attention of the viewer away from what we want them to see. We all know to look out for lamp posts growing out of heads but if you have to work to avoid that sort of problem you have chosen the subject without thinking enough about the background. Sometimes we don’t have a choice of where the subjects is positioned and what is behind it, but very often we do and we should make the most of those occasions.

Shoot the background first

If you reverse your thinking for a while you might be able to imagine a situation in which you chose your background before your subject arrives. I don’t just mean seeing somewhere and thinking ‘that would make a great place to shoot a portrait’ but actually framing the background up first and working out exactly what will be in and be out of the frame. Working with the elements and composition of the background area we can then decide where the subject will be seen most clearly.

It can be useful to actually shoot the background on its own before the subject arrives in the scene to check how it looks. Does the background make an interesting scene even without the subject in it? If it does you are on to a winner.

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Not just at weddings

The occasions we are most likely to work this hard on a background are when we are shooting the formal pictures of the happy couple at a wedding as we often scout the venue beforehand to find the corners of the locations in which we can get the prettiest images. The technique works though for all types of photography, from portraiture, to street photography to sport. Any type of image will be better if the photographer has spent time studying, working and arranging the background beforehand.

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In street photography you can frame and shoot the background to practice and then wait for the right subject to walk in to the scene, and in portraiture you can find a background without distractions that has a neat and clean space in which you can place your subject. In sport you find the spot where the subject will look cool when he or she runs into it or passes it by. Sure, it is important to get the subject sharp, well-lit and nicely exposed, but if the background doesn’t enhance the subject you aren’t creating the best picture you can.

Damien lives and breathes photography, and is a former editor of Amateur Photographer magazine. When he isn’t shooting he’s writing news or testing the latest cameras and lenses for websites, such as www.dpreview.com, and magazines such as AP and British Journal of Photography. He also teaches, showing photographers how to get the best from new or existing equipment and how to shift their photography to the next level. His passion is street photography, but he really loves all areas of photography. Based in the UK he holds regular workshops in London and around the UK.