Free Photography Tutorials, Beginners to Advanced

Composition - Check the Background

Photography Tip - Check your background for eyesores yellow bin in background spoiling photo composition

A colleague of mine covered a couple of jobs for me recently and, whilst she came back with some excellent and very usable pictures, my eye immediately fell on the bright yellow bin in the background on this one (top right). Having had a lecture from me, she went out to the same spot the following afternoon and hid the bin before she started the shoot. She then got carried away with shooting the students and didn't notice another, even more intrusive, bin on the other side of the lawn (bottom right).

I asked her permission to use these two pictures in a tutorial because I thought they illustrated perfectly the need to check the background before you press the button. I will spare her blushes by not naming her and mention once again that these were only two pictures amongst a set of very good and usable photos.

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing and it is very easy to see the faults in a photo afterwards. When you are taking the photo, however, it's not so easy. You are concentrating hard on the action, looking at the faces and trying to capture the best expressions, trying to select the best viewpoint to get the shapes and groupings that you want, deciding on the crop of the picture. Do you want a close-up or do you need to back off a bit? And all the million other things that you need to think of.

All that is exactly what you need to do but you need to do it after you have checked the background for intrusive objects. After a while and a lot of heartache from producing pictures like these, it comes naturally to view the picture as a whole, see the whole frame at once and pick out the things you want to get rid of but, like all skills, it takes time to develop this 'sixth sense'.

Look in the Corners

So what you really need is a method that you can incorporate into your picture taking routine. The place to start is the corners of the viewfinder. This is the worst place to have something jarring that is going to distract the viewer from your main subject, so make sure that there are no undesirable objects, especially in bright colors. I try to wait for all passers-by to pass by before I shoot the picture. Sometimes though, this is not possible, the location is just too busy. In that case I will just try to make sure that the people in the background are not wearing anything too brightly colored.

The next level of the 'sixth sense thingy' is to keep your other eye open, as you frame up the picture, looking out for people who are just about to ruin your picture. If you do a lot of photography in crowded places, as I do, you would do well to try and develop this technique, it's not as difficult as you might think.

Objects Behind the Head

The other comedy favorite, and the next thing to check for, is a pole or other tall object growing out of the back of someone's head. I think the reason for this common mistake is because of the transition from 3D to 2D. When you have the depth perspective of 3D, as when you are viewing the scene with your eyes, these objects are not so intrusive. It is only when you flatten the scene onto an image taken with a single lens, losing the 3D perspective, that you really notice the lamp post growing out of your subject's head. All you need to do once you have spotted this is to move to the side a little and re-compose your picture.

Bright Colors

Any bright colors in the background are a potential hazard especially if they stand out from the rest of the background. Someone wearing red in a country scene is going to draw the eye away from your main subject wherever they are in the frame. Whereas at a fairground the same person might not stand out so much.

Undesirable Objects in the Background

Some things like rubbish bins or litter are inherently undesirable in most photographs. Nothing will ruin a beautiful country scene quite like a blue dustbin liner or some scattered sweet wrappers. On the other hand a brightly colored post box could make a nice focal point to the picture.

My personal favorites for ruining a landscape picture are telegraph poles and electricity pylons, which means that where I live, landscape photography is virtually impossible. I once had to shoot a particular landscape for a job I was doing and then clone out no less than six tower cranes to make the picture look nice.

So the message is, make sure that everything in your picture is meant to be there before you press the shutter.

Other tutorials in this section


An introduction to composition, explaining the 'rule of thirds' and the use of diagonals.

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Composition - Check the Background

Watch out for those ugly dustbins!

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Rule of Thirds

The most important rule of composition.

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How to fill your frame with your subject.

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Another important aspect of composition.

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Depth of Field

What it is and how to use it creatively.

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Blur or Bleah?

How to use Motion Blur, and a discussion on when it's appropriate.

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