There are several things that you can do to help improve your images right away, without buying any new stuff. I’m going to give you one thing that you can implement right away and see results immediately.
The best part is it’s so simple it’ll blow your mind. Ready for it? Here it is…
Check the background!
That’s the gist of the tip, but let’s get a little more specific. The background, or all the stuff behind and around your subject, can actually make or break your image.
Do you carefully consider the background when you’re shooting? Or are you too focused on the subject to notice what’s in behind? Have you ever had a tree or post growing out of someone’s head?
Well, suffice to say the background is very important. If you aren’t paying attention to what’s back there you need to start doing so.
There are several elements of an image that will draw the eye. So you want to watch out for and avoid having any of these things appear in your background.
FOUR things to avoid in your background:
Any super vibrant or saturated colors will grab attention, especially warm tones like red, orange, and yellow. That guy in the yellow jacket, the red car, and even the bright green grass in the background will all steal attention away from your intended subject.
In the images above, do you notice the red backpack and bright pink pompoms before you notice the subjects?
High contrast areas
The eye is drawn to contrast, the difference between bright highlights and deep dark shadows. This includes little spots of sunlit areas next to darker areas, highly textured areas of light and dark, etc.
Basically anything in direct sunlight will create this situation so it’s best to avoid it in the background.
The extreme brightest part of an image will draw the viewer’s eye like nothing else. If that area is in the background you have an issue. Watch for specular highlights, in particular, things like reflections off cars, the sun itself, light color shiny objects in the light will reflect it back like a mirror.
Sharpness or sharp focus
The eye is naturally drawn to the part of an image that is in sharp focus. This is why portrait photographers love to make the background blurry and out of focus, and why landscape photographers like their entire image to be sharp.
But if your background is equally as sharp, it doesn’t help the viewer identify the subject of the image. There’s not one single area for the viewer to land on and quickly identify as the subject, so they may struggle to understand your image and it loses impact.
If you’re going to have your background sharp make sure it’s obvious where you want the viewer to look using another method.
The lighting must highlight the subject, or it must be brighter and more vibrantly colored than the background. Of course, image composition is important as well.
So next time you’re considering shooting at f/11, think about what you want people to see in your image. Do you really need that much depth of field and focus? Or would f/4 be a better choice?
How to fix this?
Okay so now you know what to watch out for, how do you fix it and solve this issue?
Awareness is the first step and is the key. So slow down and take a look at not only the background but all the edges of your image before you shoot.
In the two images above, can you see how distracting that red bottle is in the first shot? I shot quite a few frames and waited until he rotated so that the bottle wasn’t visible and I got the shot.
If you notice any of the four things listed above in your background try and adjust your camera angle to remove them. You may have to physically move to the left or right or find an entirely new spot from which to shoot.
Then go ahead and take a shot. If you aren’t sure if the background is distracting or not, here’s another little trick.
Turn your camera upside down!
Yes you read that right. Play the image back so you can see it on the back of the camera and then turn it upside down.
By viewing the image inverted it causes your brain to see colors and shapes and not the focus on the thing that you know is the intended subject. Your eye will immediately be drawn to the brightest, most contrasty areas in your image.
TAKE NOTE, if you see anything that grabs your attention other than the subject, THAT is the thing you need to get rid of in the background.
Next, reframe it, take another image and do the entire process again until you’re happy with the result.
Practice at home using your existing images
If you can’t get out and take photos right now, you can practice at home. Just grab a few of your images to review and use the upside-down trick.
Choose images that just didn’t quite live up to your expectations, or didn’t get the rave reviews you expected on social media. Open them up using your image editing or viewing software on your computer and rotate them 180 degrees.
View one image at a time, and really notice where your gaze lands on each. Then see if you can crop the image to improve it or do some tone control using local adjustment tools in your editing software to tone down any offending areas.
Slow down and take your time
The bottom line here is that if you slow down and take more time before you press the shutter button – you can avoid having such distracting elements in the background. That will help you take your images to the next level without buying new gear or anything more complicated.
Just slow down!
For the situation above, this was much easier to fix when shooting. I like to work smarter not harder! I moved my camera position to avoid all the background issues and came in closer to simplify the whole photo.
Trying to solve all the issues in the other image with post-processing would have been a lot more work.
This is why you want to slow down, examine your background, correct if necessary, and take a new shot (or two or three). The time you spend doing that will SAVE you time later, I guarantee.