Sometimes you’re so focused on capturing the moment that you forget to pay attention to what’s in the background of your photo. When you look at your photos later, you realize that there are all sorts of distractions in the background. One way to overcome these distractions is to use the background to help with storytelling in your photo.
Even though “the moment” is likely the most important part of your photo, good moments always happen in a place. Use the background to show where your moment or story takes place.
Think of People as Characters
The first thing I recommend is thinking of the people in your photo as characters. When you’re going to take a picture of somebody ask, “Who is this character and what are they doing?” When you answer these questions you’ll be able to choose a good background to help tell that story.
Two Ways to Choose a Background
There are two ways to choose a background for your photo.
- You can begin with your character and then choose the right background for them.
- Or, you can begin with a good background and then look for a character to put into the scene.
Finding a Background that Matches Your Character
Keep in mind the two questions to ask yourself; “Who is this character and what are they doing?”
In this photo, the character is my infant son and he is sleeping in a carrier on my wife’s back. It’s a cute picture, but there is no way to tell from the background where we were when this took place.
Finding a Character to Fit the Background
There may be times when you want to photograph an interesting scene but feel that there is something missing. Perhaps it is the character that is missing. When you come across an interesting scene, go ahead and photograph it. But also wait and allow that scene to become a background for some interesting characters.
When we visited Halls Harbour in Nova Scotia, the rugged shoreline was an obvious feature to photograph. I experimented with different angles and perspectives, but I knew I needed some good characters in the scene. Finally, a couple with their dog came walking down the shoreline. When the man began skipping stones out into the water I knew that these were the characters I was awaiting.
Make a story
When the tide was low we could walk out into the harbor amongst the ships that were now resting on the ground. Again, this was an interesting scene that just seemed to be missing a character. Then my son came tip-toeing through the mud and became the perfect character to fit the scene.
On a trip to Niagara Falls, we ducked into a building to get some relief from the cold wind and mist from the falls. Through the windows, we could see the falls and a rainbow that was produced through the mist. I wanted to take a photo but waited until my kids went and stood in the window. This allows the falls and rainbow to make up the background while my kids are the characters in the scene.
In these next two examples, I used our house as a background for the photo. We were getting ready to move in the spring and I knew we needed a few more photos, by which to remember this old house. So I was determined to use our house as a setting and photograph more scenes with it in the background.
That winter, we built a snow hill nearly as tall as the house itself. That was a perfect opportunity to photograph an exciting event with our home in the background.
Using the Background to Tell a Story in Multiple Photos
When you find a good background, go ahead and use it in different ways to expand on your story.
The following photos are all from Hopewell Rocks in New Brunswick. Every tourist who has ever been there, walks away with the same photos from the same perspectives, so I challenged myself to come away with something different. I wanted photos of the rocks, so I used them as the background for the scene and then waited for interesting characters to come along.
The first thing I noticed was lots of tourists rushing around snapping pictures of the rocks. They were always getting in the way of the photo I was taking, so I gave up and took pictures of them instead.