The secrets of taking good pictures: Backgrounds

Photography expert Tom Langford gives advice on creating the perfect background.

July 10, 2012 12:48
3 minute read.
Background 1

Background 370. (photo credit: Paul Distenfeld)

Tom Langford is an event and commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.

Shooting models on location for magazines is always an enjoyable experience. There are all sorts of problems and considerations that have to be dealt with on the spot, but it’s very satisfying to live on the edge and create excellent results time after time.

My first task on reaching an unfamiliar location is to scout around to find the best positions, distances and angles to shoot from. I need to find the most appropriate backgrounds for the style of shots required by the art director. Once these are approved I quickly set up the lighting and take a few test shots of my assistant standing in for the models. Only then do I relax and wait around for the next couple of hours while the models are made up and styled.

I’m mentioning this just to show that being aware of the background is extremely important. If you take care of the background you could easily end up with a good shot: If you neglect the background you will end up with a snap. Awareness of the background separates photographers from snappers; it’s as simple as that.

Two types of background

Let’s have a look at two shots sent in by readers that show very different approaches to creating an excellent background. Here’s a picture from Paul Distenfeld of Miami. It stands out from run-of-the-mill portraits not only because of the unusual subject and amusing expression, but also because the background is beautifully out of focus.

Paul Distenfeld

Strongly blurred backgrounds are the stock-in-trade of the professional portrait photographer. You can easily create this effect if you have a SLR camera and use the long end of a zoom lens, typically 200 – 300mm. First choose an uncluttered background, then stand well back from your subject and zoom in. Use the Av mode (Aperture Priority) that allows you to select the widest aperture – this will create the most blur. It helps if the subject isn’t too close to the background.

Professionals use “FX” SLR cameras with full frame sensors and big, heavy F2.8 zooms that together produce the best out-of-focus effects. Amateur “DX” SLRs have half-frame sensors, usually used with lighter zoom lenses that give reasonably blurred backgrounds. Compact cameras have tiny sensors that keep almost everything in focus. You can’t easily use them to take portraits with a pleasantly blurred backgrounds.

One option with a compact camera is to turn a necessity into a virtue by standing closer to the subject - use the wider end of the zoom and include more of the background in the shot. This is exactly what David Young has done with this excellent and amusing portrait.

David young

This was probably taken with the wide-angle end of a compact camera’s zoom lens. The background is in focus but adds atmosphere and strength to the shot. The composition is excellent: Notice how the heads are precisely framed by the two vertical strips of wall. The angle it is taken from has created a diagonal perspective that adds a sense of movement. The two shoppers in the background suggest activity but don’t detract because their faces aren’t shown.

Both Paul and David’s portrait shots capture wonderful expressions but could have been ruined had the backgrounds been inappropriate. If Paul’s shot included more of the background, showing a tourist bus and a road sign, it would not have been so effective. If David had zoomed in closer and accidentally included the half obscured face of another shopper it would just be another snap.

Become as aware of the background as you are of the subject and your photography improve will enormously. The moral is: Take care of the backgrounds and the pictures will take care of themselves. 

Constructive Feedback: If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I may use in one in my articles with some constructive feedback.  Send one picture only, at a small size to suitable for emails to

If you don’t know how to send a photo by email at a small size please look at my Brief Guide to Picasa:

Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details of his courses and field trips at:

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