Monroe Payne Photography | Photo Tip #5: Separate your Subject from the Background

Photo Tip #5: Separate your Subject from the Background

February 22, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Last week we spoke about being AWARE of your background.

This week we're going to play with bringing attention to your subject by intentionally making it separate from the background.

Shooting black and white film in my youth (back when I was 50) was always a bit of a crapshoot. I’d never know what the final image would look like until I actually processed and printed the photo in the darkroom. It was a magical time to see your images come to life out of the liquid developer and become the image that the camera saw.

Notice, I didn’t say the image I took. The camera is (again) a box with a hole in it, and it takes a bit of “knowing” to control the light that makes it in the hole.

The photo I remember was of a pheasant in the woods, beautifully marked and camouflaged in its surroundings. So perfectly camouflaged in fact that if you didn’t know it was there, it was difficult to see in the black and white image, because the background was exactly as brightly lit as the subject.

There are three ways of telling your story without the background interfering too much.

The first is relative brightness. A light subject will show up beautifully on a dark Hilby background, and vice versa. The eye will know exactly where to look and how to interpret your image

The second is color. A bright green background like a soccer field versus the brightly dressed competitors make it easy to tell which is which. A quiet woodland scene with a loving coup  le dressed in blue… *sigh*.

And the third is selective focus. Blur the background while photographing the foreground by use of the f-stop. (or the portrait or flower thingy on the camera – it’s the  same…).

#1 – Brightness. An evening winter festival in upstate New York with Hilby, the Skinny German Juggling Boy on his unicycle. I was running ahead of the crowd, turned around and caught him with the black evening behind him, separating him nicely from the background. Play with this. Have a friend help you as well, photographing him (or her) with backgrounds of varying brightness; sky, woods, evening cityscape – lots of places.

So what if people watch? That’s kinda fun too….

#2 - Color Separation. My Golden Retriever Ginger was terribly frightened on her first day at her new home. Of course our entire family wanted to love her to death, but she thought it might be safer to hide, for a moment, in the tall grass. My daughter Mindy (who is very aware of “the moment”) captured this photo of frightened puppy in the grass. The relative brightness of the grass and the puppy are similar, but the colors are very starkly different, separating her from the background.

#3 – Selective focus. Or the flower thingy. The portrait thingy does the same thing, only not as much. Look at how the flower is in crisp focus and the background (dead grass) is a blur. Had the background been IN focus, the image wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.

So practice and play. You can do this at home, in a park, annoy your coworkers or just take some time to yourself and test it out.

 

We’re building a step at a time here. Become comfortable with the camera, confident in your “Boom” and aware of the light you let in that hole!

 

Monroe Payne is a portrait and commercial photographer in Ithaca, NY. His passion is improving the level of the craft of photography by teaching, mentoring and connecting professionals in this wonderful, personal service of Photography that we provide.


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