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Background Thoughts

I am often handed cameras and asked to take photographs of couples whenever I’m at a picturesque or touristy location. They generally want the background in as well – sort of a documentation of where they have been.

My feeling used to be that you can either have a pic of a location or one of them – generally not both. But you’re a location photographer you say? Well, yes, at least some of the time.

Those feelings originate with a belief that you need to highlight one or the other. Usually it’s your subject. To do that means to separate the two – make the background darker or lighter, or out of focus. Or both. Being handed a point-and-shoot with limited or no control of aperture or exposure (or no time to figure it out) makes this a little difficult.

This image of Kiki at Lake Marion in South Carolina is a good example of what I’m talking about. Here, there is both focus and light which provide that separation.

© Donald J. Fadel, Jr. |

You can see the lake behind her, and get a feel for the location, but she is definitely the subject of the image. The combination of lighting and focus pops her from the background and makes her stand out.

I think composition also plays a role, as does color.

In this case, the background forms leading lines pointing to her. Since we read left-to-right (at least in the Western Hemisphere, for the most part) our brains are used to starting here when looking at material. This helps the eye move naturally through the image, so you notice the background (it’s a lake!) and yet there’s no question that the image is about Kiki.

I also think that color plays a role here. Her blue top pops from the green in the background, yet it also provides a visual hint that there are two parts of the image.

Successfully incorporating interesting backgrounds of people means you have to pick a hero for the shot. Separate the hero from the rest of the shot and the two can work harmoniously and not compete with each other. Competition – at least in an image – is seldom a good thing. It confuses. I’ve always thought of photography as clarifying, and a successful image will do just that.


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