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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: Watch your Back…Background that is! Story and photographs by F.M. Kearney

By August 22, 2014No Comments
Daylily "Silken Touch" Hemerocallis (Hemerocallidaceae) New York Botanical Garden

Daylily  “Silken Touch” Hemerocallis (Hemerocallidaceae) New York Botanical Garden

I was setting up atop a small hill when I heard the sound of quick footsteps. Seconds later, they stopped. I heard a click, and the footsteps sounded again followed by another stop and another click. This pattern repeated several times. With my curiosity stirred, I finally looked up and saw a man briskly walking through a cluster of daffodils. He would stop just for a moment to take a quick photo, then walk a few feet away and take another. That kind of “rapid-fire photography” usually results in mediocre snapshots. Creative photographs take time. Often, deciding what to do with your background can make the difference between a mediocre shot and a creative one.

This is especially true when photographing flower portraits. So often, very little if any thought is given to what’s lurking in the background—for example, twigs, fences, people, you name it. I’ve passed up many perfect specimens simply because the background had little or nothing to offer. Fortunately, this is a problem that can usually be fixed. In most cases, your subject is going to be fairly close, and as such, your background will probably comprise a small area that can be controlled.

Sometimes, the best way to handle a busy background is to simply throw it out of focus. The background of the pink day lily was filled with an unsightly assortment of stems, grass and other flowers. A wide, f/2.8 aperture, and a focal length of 200mm, transformed all of those distractions into a beautiful bouquet of color. The downward curved object above the yellow anthers was actually a dead and withered bloom. I carefully aligned it with the upward curved pistil to create a natural framing element for the stamens. If you don’t have a 2.8 long lens, you may not be able to turn your background into a soft field of pastel colors. Therefore, you need to be considerably more selective with your compositions.

TU-140a+_edited-1I shot the tulips with a split-aperture f/5.6-4 lens. Even at 200mm, the background was still recognizable. I adjusted the height of my tripod to deliberately place the three yellow tulips into the empty space between the red and the purple ones, which were much farther away. I then used my depth-of-field preview to find an aperture setting that would give me the optimum amount of separation I needed between the two fields.

Clearly, backgrounds can work either for you or against you. Creative compositions aren’t always immediately evident and take time to visualize. It’s not uncommon for me to spend hours composing shots in one small area. In the short time it took that rapid-fire photographer to shoot five or six pictures of the daffodils, I hadn’t even finished setting up my tripod.

F.M. Kearney is a fine art nature photographer, specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, please visit

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