10 ways to incorporate the background into your photograph’s narrative

You’ve got your head around the exposure triangle and understand the basic rules of composition. If your photographs still don’t look the way you want it could be because you’ve not considered the background. This post gives ten pointers to help you make your background work for you.

Look around and when your eyes fall upon something you like, you tend to forget its surroundings. This is because of the way our brains and our eyes interact; through a combination of focus and concentration, the surroundings and context of the subject become less important to us unless we concentrate on them instead. It’s harder to give a similar result in photography.  The first step in doing so comes as we become more conscious of our environment.


Placing myself where I could shoot the cyclist with a nice contrasting shady grey road was not enough here, so I used panning and a high aperture to stop the people in the background interfering with my story.

Placing myself where I could shoot the cyclist with a nice contrasting shady grey road was not enough, so I used panning and a high aperture to stop the people in the background interfering with my story.

When you are composing your photograph, think how each of the following might help you minimise or utilise potential distractions. Then think about how each scenario helps or prevents you showing the narrative you want;

1. Look for accidental add-ons
Are there strong lines or background features very close to your subject? Get another angle! That way your images won’t a show street sign or lamp post that appears to be growing from your subject’s head, a sharp black line extending from his back or similar hilarious story-destroying disaster.. unless you’ve decided you want them.

2. Look for clashing and competing colours
Clothing, adverts, doors, shop windows and more can all make your image look wrong or reduce its impact. Find a different angle or move your location and the too-busy image will sort itself out.

3. Consider the relative brightness of the background
Whether you decide to shoot your subject with a bright or dark background doesn’t matter, but if parts of the background are light and other parts are dark, decide whether this adds or takes away from the impact of the photo. If it takes from it, shoot the background from a different angle to create the visual story you want.

4. Consider the zoom
Less background means less complexity. Will zooming right in spoil the story? Whether you decide to do this will depends on the image you have in your mind and the lenses you have with you.

5. Is your background too busy?
How important is the background to your story? If it is only of peripheral importance and there is a lot going on in it, move around and find an angle that works better. If the background is not important at all, find another location or different angle that eliminates as much of its ‘busyness’ as possible.

6. Is there a way you can integrate the background into your story?
If the background is really important, or if there are strong leading lines or other compositional features use them. Find an angle and either place your subject where it makes sense in the composition or find a good angle and then set things up so you only need to wait until your subject travels to the right place.

7. Wait until your subject passes an area that provides contrast
Even if your background is very complex your image can work nicely if you time your shot for when your subject passes in front of a significantly lighter or darker area.

8. Use aperture to ‘bokeh’ out the background details
You already know how to do this. Focussed on the right place a large aperture will result in a small sharp area (ideally your subject) and a blurry background.

9. Use shutter speed and panning to ‘whiz’ out the background
This can work for very busy backgrounds provided that the blur contributes to the story you want to tell and makes visual sense.

10. All this is well and good, but it’s useful to have a method to help you consider the background until you have done it so many times it has become natural. Here are three ways of doing this that might help:

1. Imagine the scene as black and white
This can help you understand better where areas of good and bad contrast are, and how you might use them. Do they mean you need to shoot from a different angle? Is there an area of optimal contrast in your composition that helps tell the story and makes visual sense?

2. Cut the scene into quarters
In each part of the scene look for things that might compete with the message you want to convey in your photograph. Are there any distracting elements? If there are, decide how you want to minimise them.

3. Think of the scene as an analogue clock face
Look for things that might compete with your message in each part of the backgroundthe direction indicated by the hours on the cloc. Start at 12.00, and check the background for each ho until you reach 11.00.


Next Wednesday I will introduce some basic rules of composition.


Every Wednesday I post something that will help my students. Each blog post is the synthesis of my experience as a pro-phtoographer and years of teaching photography to adults, children and teenagers. To attend a group course find me at City Academy

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