I admit that these kinds of tips are pretty drastic over simplifications of composing a good image. The subject of composition is a complete topic of it’s own. A pretty complicated and large one too. But just in case you’ve been looking for tips to improve the backgrounds in your photography, I have few quite simple composition tricks to share.

I’ve written these tips particularly a subject centric photography in mind — let’s say a portrait of a friend or something similar. You’d of course want the background to complement the subject and here’s how you can do that.    

Shoot from a slightly lower perspective

Much can be achieved by squatting slightly and shooting from a lower angle than usual. Not necessarily from a frog’s eye perspective, but about 30—40cm lower than the one you’d have when just standing in your normal stance. 

It all depends of course but let’s assume you’re using a landscape or a street view as a background. By lowering your perspective, you can compose the subject above the horizon line, giving it generally much better background separation, better ground to figure -relationship and a clear spot to place the subject on. You can, for example, place the subject’s face on a clear bit of sky, or some other calm part of the frame. You can frame surprisingly much distracting eye level elements out this way because other people (and things) usually don’t tend float in the air.

You’ll also be able to open the background up nicely and have much greater depth in the image. The key thing here is to avoid the most typical angle, that everyone else would default to. Shooting from the normal stance, as most people do, will more often than not clog the background with other nearby elements that are on the eye level. Lowering the angle even slightly will usually clean up the background considerably.  

Example composition 1
Example composition 2
Example composition 3
Example composition 4

Shoot from a higher perspective

As opposed to the previous tip, one other similar trick is to shoot from slightly higher perspective, placing the subject more or less against the ground. This is a really simple way to clean up the background from unwanted elements. It’s all about deciding what to put into the frame and what to leave out. 

On the following three example images, the scenes were crowded with other people and parked cars, but you could never tell.

Example composition 5
Example composition 6
Example composition 7

Look what’s behind the subject

How many times have you noticed that the photo would be otherwise pretty good, but there’s something in the background that just ruins everything? Maybe there’s a fire extinguisher, power outlet or the plumber’s van that you’ll need to photoshop out. These are easy to avoid by just being aware what’s behind the subject. This is hard for beginners because it is extremely hard to notice everything that’s happening in the ever changing frame. Just by acknowledging that such thing is good to take into consideration, you’ll eventually start to pay attention to the entire frame. 

There’s usually not much that you can do about unwanted background elements, but just by moving about a bit can improve your chances of composing them out from the picture. If not by any other means, you can always try to compose such thing behind the subject, rendering it non-existent to the viewer. 

Example composition 8
Example composition 9

Aperture considerations (yes, now we talk about bokeh)

If everything else fails or if you just want to blow the background out of focus for stylistic reasons, you can always resort to shooting wide open, making the background such a blurry mess that it doesn’t matter what it consists of. 

If that is the case, here’s the 101 of creating bokeh. The so called normal lenses and longer ones are better for the job than the wider ones. Wide angle lenses have too much depth of field to create bokeh sufficiently. You’d ideally need something like 50mm f1.8 or longer. A relatively fast 35mm fill suffice too. Wider lenses can create bokeh too, but you’re asking for trouble. You’ll need to get increasingly closer to the subject. It will cause distortion, which you don’t want… at least in a portrait. All together is better to stick with 50mm and longer. 

What you also need is a relatively large aperture. Not necessarily even f1.8, but depending on — for example on your focal length and the distance between you and the subject, something like f4 can be quite enough. (It may be much better option anyway, if you want to have the entire subject in focus or to nail the focus to begin with.) Remember that shallow depth of field is what creates the bokeh effect. You could almost say that the so called bokeh isn’t basically anything more than outrageously “mis-focused” areas, outside the depth of field. 

Other important things to know is the distances. Roughly speaking, the distance between you and the subject should be shorter than the distance between the subject and the background. If you want to go completely bananas with bokeh, shoot your subject from the minimum focusing distance that your lens allows and make sure there’s plenty of distance (anything between five meters to infinity) between the subject and the background. In that case, the subject is in focus, but the background will be as out of focus as physically possible.    

Generally speaking good bokeh is harder to create than it sounds like. It’s certainly much harder to use within a good taste, because it is so trendy and many people do it just for the sake of it. I wouldn’t perhaps use that as the default option. It doesn’t necessarily turn otherwise bad background into a good one, so I’d still make sure the background would work nicely even without it — i.e. composed properly otherwise as well. Used on top of a working foundation it can render magical images and really captivating backgrounds. 

Example composition 10 (35mm f2.8 lens)
Example composition 11 (50mm f1.8 lens)

Focal length considerations

If you’ve ever used a really wide angle lens, you know how hard it is to concentrate on a single thing on the photo. Wide angle lens will include such a large amount of stuff into the frame, that you’ll struggle to keep the background clean. You’ll simply have more elements to take into consideration. 

I suck at wide angle lenses even though I’d like to know them better. 50mm is really nice when you want to concentrate on just a thing or two in the frame. That is to say, it is easy lens for tidy backgrounds. 

I also like 35mm a lot and even though the general consensus seems to be that they are very similar focal lengths, I find them to be like day and night. 50mm is generally quite tight. 35mm is as wide as I can comfortably go. I immediately find background composition challenges when going 35mm. On the other hand, with a 50mm I’d often like to include more context and a wider view of the background. 35mm definitely provides that, but since it shows more, there’s more elements to worry about. One step wider into 28mm I find the amount of visual information unbearable. 

50mm is a pretty safe bet to increase the chances of getting nicely composed backgrounds. Or at least it is great for learning that.

Street photography on 35mm film
Example composition 12 (35mm lens)
Example composition 13 (50mm lens)

Further suggestion(s)

As a bottom line, I’d like to stress the importance of just actually studying art theory and practising making images (drawing and painting too). The tips in this article are just pretty random tidbits of information that are perhaps good to know, but no blogpost can substitute actually delving into something.

Happy shooting! 🙂