Why is it Important to have an Interesting Background?
You may have noticed by now that I've not put any photos of a model on a white background on this site, and there's a good reason for this – I find these photos boring and unimaginative and the shooting environment unconducive to interesting photography. You see, the way I see it, is that every pixel in a photo have an equal amount of importance and it's your job, as the photographer, to ensure that each part of the photo looks good.
When you start to make your backgrounds more interesting, you'll find that people spend more time looking at them, often without them realising the appeal of the photo. There are plenty of ways to do this, and we're gonna have a little look at some of them now.
This is a term that I've used a few times on this website and spoke in detail about in this post, but essentially, it’s the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photograph. If you have a close subject, a distant background and a wide aperture, then you magnify the bokeh effect. Check out the photo below, and you'll the soft circular blur in the background which is an example of good bokeh. In this photo, the background has as much appeal to the viewer as the subject – the BBQ. I really like using a strong bokeh as the softness of it all is very appealing and easy to look at.
When light shines directly into the camera's lens and the aperture isn't too wide then it produces some really cool 'star' effects on the light source. As well as lighting up the background and providing interesting detail, it also lights the subject in a way in which you don't typically see. Use the lighting to illuminate your background and provide a point of interest by arranging your lights so that they provide details to the most important parts of your background.
If you're shooting at night, you're going to need to raise your ISO if you want to reveal any detail in your background. Even in the photo above, I used an ISO of 1200 as it allowed me to see all the finer details that attracted the viewer to the photo. The photo below was shot with an on-camera, external flash unit at ISO 1600 and an aperture of f/2.8. As you can see, this has produced a very shallow DoF, but turned a photo of a man on a street into much more than that, by providing much more detail.
Rule of Thirds
As you can probably see from the photos I've use so far, I like to adhere roughly to the rule of thirds when trying to include an interesting background. The rule basically dictates that photos should be split into 9 equal parts; 2 equally-spaced horizontal lines and 2 equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important features within the frame should intersect with these lines at some point. This allows me to actually include a background that people can actually see.
There's no reason why your background can't also be another subject, like I've done in the photo below. This, believe it or not was a candid photo and the foreground subject was looking in the same direction as the background subject, and it was at the exact point that he looked towards my camera that I took the photo. This contrast in subject's interest makes you wonder where to look and stops becoming a simple photo of a person. Contrast in background and foreground is key here.
I'm written in depth about horizontal, vertical, diagonal and converging lines in photography and the power that they have to direct the viewers eyes in a certain direction and I recommend that you read about that in further detail. The great part about using lines in your background is that they're remarkable subtle – you may like the background in my photo, but without mentioning lines, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that interests you. Once again, there's contrast present in the photography, but this time it's also present in the background – the lines are sharp and soft.
The great thing about paths in photography is that if you include a subject as well, they can provide dynamic tension. By this I mean that your eyes don't know whether to go up and down the subject of down the path which causes a tension in your eyes. This is a superb trick to convince your viewer to look at the photo for longer without them even realising why. The added sense of wonder is what keeps the viewer entertained.
Sometime, I like to use a frame within a frame to focus the attention towards the background. In the photo below, I've used two parts of a banister to act as a sort of tunnel, directing the attention towards the subject. Frames do an excellent job of providing context to a photo while adding a soft border by providing an out-of-focus blur around the edge of the primary subject.
This is at the end of the list because it's probably one the easiest techniques to implement, especially if the colours you're using in the background contrast with the colours in the foreground like mine does below. The contrast is the most important point to make here because if your foreground and background are too similar, they merge into one, and cease to be two effective and different points of interest. I love using colour in my photography when possible as it really helps to make the photos stand out from the rest of an album.