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Tips and techniques

Photography 101: Using Natural Backgrounds

By February 2, 2022No Comments

An Easy Way to Add More Interest to Your Photos

Strategically placed background objects add interest to this single tree peony. A closeup photo of a white flower with blurred white flowers in the background. © F. M. Kearney
Strategically placed background objects add interest to this single tree peony. © F. M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

An often overlooked, but important element in a good photograph is the background. Having a good background is more than just making sure you don’t have a tree growing out of the top of Uncle Bob’s head. In nature photography, a good background is what ties your entire composition together. It should enhance the photo by providing valuable information about the environment without becoming a distraction to the subject.

I actually spend more time looking for an interesting background for a subject than I do looking for the subject itself! Spotting a beautiful flower or scene is easy because it’s right there in front of you. What takes effort is finding a complementary background to go along with it. It’s not uncommon for me to spend hours analyzing a subject – looking at it from every conceivable angle in order to find a background that will enhance it in some way. If I can’t find one, I’ll usually forgo taking the photo. I’ve passed up many good subjects because of this in the past. I’d rather take a good subject and make it look great, as opposed to just settling for a good subject.

This process, by the way, will go a lot quicker if your camera isn’t locked down on a tripod. Of course, you should always be in the habit of using a tripod (especially when shooting intimate close-ups), but only when you’re absolutely ready to shoot. Having to constantly pick up and reposition a heavy camera/tripod combo is cumbersome and tiring, and likely to cause you to settle for one of the first compositions you find. It’s best to hand-hold the camera as you walk around the subject searching for good angles. You should only mount the camera on the tripod once you’re happy with the composition.

Urban Nature is a recent addition to NANPA’s blog, a series of articles created to address the issues of nature photographers living in urban areas, with little or no access to conventional, natural environments. It will focus on topics ranging from finding subjects to finding inspiration. Also, in an effort to attract more beginners into the field, it will attempt to demystify the art of photography in general.

Strategically Placed Objects

The opening photo is an example of how strategically placed objects in the background can enhance an image. It was the peak blooming period and the peony garden in the New York Botanical Garden was attracting a lot of visitors. Most of the casual shooters grabbed a few shots and quickly moved on. I spent over an hour and a half surveying the blooms. Most were in excellent condition, but I wanted something more than just a pretty flower. After spotting one with an opening between its petals, I searched for something interesting the fill the void. Another flower, just a few feet away, gave me that “something extra” I was seeking. Below is another example of how subtly placed background objects can add more interest to your photos. I surrounded the rose with other roses in the background. They’re sufficiently out of focus so as to not distract from the main subject.

Red climbing rose and buds enhanced with background objects. Closeup photo of a red rose with several other red roses out of focus in the background. © F. M. Kearney
Red climbing rose and buds enhanced with background objects. © F. M. Kearney

Adding Color

If you want to add more color to your photos, try including something of a different (or matching) color to your subject in the background. This is a much better (and more natural) way than merely increasing the saturation level in post. The two images below are examples of how easily this can be done. To break the monotony of the white and green color scheme of the coneflowers (left), I included some purple coneflowers in the upper-right corner. This added just a hint of color – increasing the overall appeal of the image. You can also try matching the color of something in the scene. The yellow flowers in the upper-left background of the red peony (right) nicely match its yellow filaments.

White coneflowers enhanced with a hint of color (left). Yellow flowers in rear match yellow filaments of this peony (right).  © F. M. Kearney
White coneflowers enhanced with a hint of color (left). Yellow flowers in rear match yellow filaments of this peony (right). © F. M. Kearney

Including a Foreground

Although you might not give it as much thought as the background, the foreground is just as important. Like the background, it also sets the tone of the scene, but its placement is very crucial. If you deliberately put something in front of your subject you need to be absolutely certain that it does not obscure your subject in an off-putting way. Interesting foregrounds and backgrounds are generally not something you immediately notice when you arrive at a scene. It takes time to find elements that work well together. The Korean chrysanthemums (below) were growing in a tight cluster. It was the perfect opportunity to make use of both foreground and background elements. But, I needed to find a bloom that had a fairly unobstructed foreground and an interesting background. After studying the scene for a while, I finally found a lone, pink bloom that was rising sufficiently above the pack to clear the foreground elements. A few feet away was a cluster of blue chrysanthemums. Not only did they provide the perfect background, they also added another color element to the shot.

Korean chrysanthemum with a foreground and background. Photo of a single chrysanthemum flower with other out of focus chrysanthemums in the foreground and background. © F. M. Kearney
Korean chrysanthemum with a foreground and background. © F. M. Kearney

Subtlety is Key

All of the photos I’ve shown thus far are close-up, floral portaits. The most important thing to keep in mind when shooting images like these is that the background and/or foreground should add to the scene without being seen. In other words, they should look like they just seamlessly fell into place – like background actors in a movie. They complement the scene but they don’t steal the show. Although it might sound a bit contradictory, it should also be clear that the background and/or foreground is a deliberate inclusion and not the result of a careless mistake. The best way to do this is to use a shallow depth of field to ensure that the subject, and only the subject, is the sharpest object in the photo. I go into more details about this in an article I wrote last year about apertures and shutter speeds.

Editor’s Note: Today marks F. M. Kearney’s 105th article for the NANPA blog. For more than eight years, Kearney (along with fellow monthly contributor Jerry Ginsberg) has been educating and informing readers with tips, lessons, exercises, and examples of all aspects of nature photography. His Photography 101 and Urban Nature columns have been particularly valuable to newcomers and excellent reminders to experienced photographers. We salute Kearney and thank him for his contributions. It’s been a pleasure to work with him.

Using Backgrounds and Foregrounds With Landscapes

Azalea garden enhanced by an interesting background. Pink azalea flowers dominate the foreground and middle ground while the edge of a forest fills the background. © F. M. Kearney
Azalea garden enhanced by an interesting background. © F. M. Kearney

Backgrounds and foregrounds are even more important to landscape images. As with floral portraits, they too enhance the scene, but usually in considerably bolder ways. Instead of just being subtle nuances, they become integral parts of the image. I shot the azaleas (above) in the azalea garden of the New York Botanical Garden. Rather than simply shooting a tight cluster, I included some of the surrounding trees in the background to add more interest and a sense of place. I was also careful to ensure that I did not cut off the main parts of the three trees in the background. Attention to minor details can make a major difference in the overall appeal of the image.

Foreground elements enhance this view of the Gulf of Mexico. Photo of a rocky beach with the ocean in the middleground and distance. Clouds fill the sky. A few tree branches come in from the top, providing a framing element. © F. M. Kearney
Foreground elements enhance this view of the Gulf of Mexico. © F. M. Kearney

I shot the image above along a beach in Venice, FL – located on the west coast of the Panhandle, bordering the Gulf of Mexico. I used the rocky shoreline and the overhanging pine branch as decorative foreground elements. Including overhanging branches is a good way to cover a boring sky. Of course, that wasn’t really necessary here since the clouds were quite dramatic. It would have still been a good photo had I just shot the water and the sky, but it would have looked relatively flat. By including the branches and the rocks, the image takes on an almost three-dimensional appearance.

If you’re a regular reader of my Photography 101 articles, you should be feeling a lot more confident with your skills behind the camera at this point. Once you get the basics down, it’s time to start thinking a little more creatively. Including backgrounds and foregrounds in your images is an easy and fun way to begin.

Photo of F.M. Kearney F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).