Have you ever been photo bombed? What are your eyes drawn to when you look at that image?

Welcome back to the JTP Journal. I am giving you tips on how to improve your photography so that you can save a few bucks and take your own senior portraits or simply improve your portrait photography skills. In this post I am going to give you some tips on how to avoid background elements that can detract from images.

Avoid Distracting Elements

One of the hallmarks of a great image is that the viewer's eyes are drawn to focus on a specific location, typically the subject. One way that we can help this is by ensuring that there is nothing that competes with the subject for the viewer's attention. Check out the image below that I took when at Disney last year with my 4 year old smartphone. It is a terrible image for many reasons and is straight off of my phone. (Disclaimer: It is not a high quality camera, has scratches all over the lens, was in low light, and was probably foggy from being in my pocket in Florida, so please don't judge my photography skills on this one.) The image is supposed to be focused on Belle and my son. However, there are 3 other groups of people that are in the picture: middle left side, middle right side, and bottom right. When I look at this image, my eyes go first to Belle and my son but then immediately start wandering to see what these other people are doing.

While taking this image, I could have changed the framing by moving the camera closer to the subjects until the distracting people were no longer in frame. This, of course, is the best option when your camera has a fixed focal length (i.e. most every smartphone). I was stuck in a seat watching the show, so that option was not available to me. Instead, I employed a simple crop afterwards when editing the photo. See the right (or bottom) image. Notice how much more Belle and my son remain at your attention than the uncropped image.

You Only Need A Small Amount of Quality Background

Often times, when we think of choosing a background, we think that we need some amazing location that is beautiful in all directions. Though that makes it easier, those locations are hard to come by and they are not even that necessary. Unless you are trying to take a full length shot of a person where the location will necessarily become a large part of the image, you can get away with a place that looks great and is only 3-4 feet wide. The trick is choosing the angle of the shot and making sure to fill the frame with the subject. See the examples below of the same image shot in the same place but capturing more or less of the background.

BAD! Lots of messy background elements.

BETTER... Fewer background elements in frame

BEST! No distracting elements in frame

When you have no other option... hide the problem

One of the tricks that was used above was to reduce the amount of background junk in the frame by shooting upwards. Another option is to make use of foreground objects to hide distracting elements in the background. It may sound like a bad idea to put something else in the frame, but odds are that it will be strongly blurred out and less distracting. Take the following two images I captured while serving as a photographer for my church recently. I was in a room off the main auditorium where service was taking place and there was a window into the auditorium. I intended to capture an image of our pastor giving the message, so my first thought was to use the window to frame him in the picture. Though this is a great picture, there is a lot going on. I wanted an image that was more strongly focused on our pastor, so because I had no ability to zoom in with my lens, I used the edge of the window frame to block out the stuff in the frame I did not want. See how that changes the image and really gives your eye little to distract.

The window frames our pastor, the screen, and bibles... and people... and a guitar... and a winter hat...

The window frame and wall block out many distracting elements. The viewer's eye is now where I want it.

Blur it Out

A final technique is available to you if you have a camera with an interchangeable lens like a DSLR or mirrorless camera. This technique uses lenses that can produce bokeh (i.e. out of focus elements in the background/foreground). The amount of bokeh created by a lens is intrinsically affected by characteristics of the lens. Lower F-stop settings and longer focal lengths create shallower depths of field. For example, a 105-mm lens at F/1.4 will create A LOT more blurriness than a 24-mm lens at F/2.8. This allows you to "hide" things in plain view of the camera.

Besides the lens itself, the distance you put between yourself and the subject AND the distance between the subject and the background matters. In general, you want to reduce the distance between you and the subject and increase the distance between the subject and the background.

See the image below of a grasshopper I captured with my 55-mm lens at F/2.8. The lens was probably less than 12 inches from the grasshopper and the background was about 10 yards away. Notice how it is impossible to recognize anything in the background. It is just a smooth, creamy green blur!

Go Try It!

The best part about photography is that you can keep trying new things to see what works. That is especially true in the age of digital cameras when taking a picture costs nothing more than pressing a button. The next time that you pick up that smartphone or camera to start taking pictures, pay attention to what is in the frame behind your subject. A few changes in how you shoot the image can make a HUGE difference. Happy shooting!