Consider The Background

We brought up “best quality photos” in the last blog. I noted there that many had blurred backgrounds and that those backgrounds may have accounted for the higher ratings. I provided Josh Houck’s Facebook photo (below) as an example. Folks on Facebook raved about it and responded to it. I responded in this way: “All you photographers out there…note the interest in this photo, and consider the many reasons why.”


Here’s what I was thinking. First, Josh’s photo appeared to be an eye-level photo—and it was sharp. Second, it was well-composed and captured gesture. Richard Bernabe defines gesture as “a movement of part of the body that expresses some idea or meaning.” I love that. Third, but maybe most importantly, it had a soft, defocused background that made the subject “pop.” There were no distractions, and viewers’ eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the subject, the point of interest.

A Similar Example 

Here’s a similar example from FM Forums, the photography forum I belong to. This is an eastern gray squirrel that had laid hold of a bird’s flight feather. The photographer who took it had “been out of the game” for a while but had just picked up a new Canon RF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM lens which he was pairing with a Canon EOS R5. Many loved this photo, too. Comments included things like “nice way to get back in the game,” and “sharp image.” But one comment stood out. This was from Joshua Ong, a gifted photographer, “Look at the smooth bokeh! Wonderful and enjoyable image you got from that camera setup.” Joshua noticed the bokeh right off. Folks often notice bokeh right off. I define bokeh below.

Eastern gray squirrel
Eastern gray squirrel

The Background

Let’s return to the Ovenbird photo. How did Josh #1 achieve that background? I promised we’d cover that here. He achieved it by having the right gear, by knowing how to use it, and especially by knowing how to use it to control the depth of field (DOF) or area of sharpest focus. He used what he knew to create a DOF that effectively highlighted the subject and rendered the background a nice, creamy blur (a blur often referred to as “bokeh.”). Let’s explore that further, and let’s start with his gear.

Nikon 500mm prime lens
Nikon 500mm prime lens

Focal Length

First, Josh used a long telephoto zoom or prime (like the above) to get his shot. He didn’t use a standard or medium telephoto. He knew that a longer focal length lens creates a shallower DOF. Which leads me to a quick story—and tangent.

Not all that long ago, I didn’t think that a long lens could be used to make a photo like Josh’s or the one of the squirrel. I thought the only way to make photos like that was to use a short lens and to shoot wide open. But one Sunday afternoon in 2014, my wife and I visited Sandy Bottom Nature Park in Hampton, VA. I brought along my Canon XTi crop frame camera and a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 telephoto zoom. Up to that point, I’d used that lens very little. I brought it along to shoot wintering ducks, but on a whim took some shots of my wife with it. And I took them at the long end—at 300mm. The photos, since lost, both rocked and were a revelation. They were the best I’d ever taken of her. But here’s a similar one I took in 2018 of a gal fishing at Gifford Pinchot State Park in PA. She was taking a break as I snapped her photo from behind some brush. I took it at a focal length of 400mm and with an aperture setting of  f/6.3. Ironically, this 3/4 portrait is sometimes referred to as a “cowboy shot” (framing from above the head to just below the holster). 

Woman taking a break
Taking a break

Subject Distance

Second, Josh got as close to his subject as possible without disturbing it and/or flushing it. He also made sure there was good separation between his subject and the background (very important). He knew that the closer the subject is to the camera, the shallower the DOF. Subject to camera distance isn’t always something photographers consider, but it’s another thing that affects DOF. For example, look at the narrow area of focus in this photo of a young robin I took back in September. The area almost appears as a line. Because I was close to the bird, the point of focus, almost eveything else in the photo is blurred. It also helped that I was shooting @ 700mm. I’d set the aperture to f/6.3.

Juvenile American Robin
Juvenile American Robin

Sensor Size

Not only was I close and using a long lens when I photographed the robin, but I was also using a Canon EOS R5, a full-frame camera. Sensor size is yet another thing that affects DOF. It does this indirectly, though. That line I just mentioned would have been wider, and there would have been less of that nice foreground and background blur had I been using my crop frame XTi. So we can then add sensor size to our list, which includes aperture, focal length and subject distance. 

And This Just In

Notwithstanding the above, you don’t have to use a full-frame camera to achieve great backgrounds. Josh used a crop frame Canon EOS 70D (paired with a 400mm prime lens) to capture the Ovenbird. He shot it wide open @ f/5.6.

We’ve made a big deal of “bokeh.” If you’d like to learn more, check out Todd Vorenkamp’s “Understanding Bokeh.” It’s a fascinating read.

Quip, Question, Quote

Though this doesn’t pertain to backgrounds, here’s more from Richard Bernabe: “Success in capturing animal gesture depends not only on a great deal of patience and waiting for something interesting to happen but also extensive knowledge of a certain species habits and natural tendencies. Wait for the decisive moment, and be ready.”

“Mastering depth of field will give you the creative control over what’s in sharp focus in your images, turning you into a better storyteller.” Antoni Cladera

“Don’t forget the background and keep the background simple. A great background makes the shot more interesting and helps propel the story.” Richard Oshen

Juvenile Great Blue Heron
Juvenile Great Blue Heron

Thanks for reading.


2 thoughts on “Consider The Background

  1. Dave, thank you for quoting me in your blog. Both of us share the same hobby, or actually, more passion, namely bird photography. I enjoy reading your blog and please keep up the great work.

    Liked by 1 person

Please leave a reply - You may enter your name and email address if you'd like, but all fields are optional when leaving a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s