Saturday, November 5, 2011

BACKGROUND ELEMENTS AS CONTEXT--OR NOT

Sometimes the area behind the primary subject of a photo is important to the composition and sometimes it is unwanted clutter.  It depends on the subject and the "story" that is being told by the photo.  It also depends to an extent on the "size" of the subject of the photo.

Consider the following photo of Geri, Jeff, and Bei that I took during our recent trip to Utah.  They are the primary subject matter of the photo, but the shot wouldn't make a lot of sense if I didn't show what they were looking at.


This was taken at an aperture of f/8.0.  I might have opened up the aperture to focus on the individuals.  The background scene would still have been present but less in focus.  The effect would have been to emphasize the human side of the story.  As this was more or less a spontaneous shot, I wasn't thinking too much about those options.

In landscape photography, the background is virtually always going to be an important element in the shot and its inclusion is usually unavoidable in any case.

With intermediate-sized subjects, such as sculptures, one sometimes has a choice whether to include any background as context.  For example, in the following shot the background serves to provide a sense of place.


And in the following shot it also provides a comparison of artistic sensibilities and styles.


I'm sure the museum knew what they were doing when they juxtaposed these two pieces of art.

On the other hand, in the following shot I isolated the sculpture from any background context.  There is something to be said for this if the goal is to focus totally on the subject without any distraction.


I particularly liked the following sculpture shot because it provides some context--exterior in the fall--and color, but by controlling the depth of field I was able to prevent the background from becoming a distraction from the subject of the shot.


The following shot was less successful, as I was unable to sufficiently isolate the subject from the background, despite taking the shot with the aperture wide open.



When it comes to macro photography, backgrounds are usually a distraction from the subject matter.  Recently, I went back to Doctors Park to look for some late fall opportunities.  As I said to another photographer also interested in macro, as winter approaches, it's amazing how one starts to look at dead vegetation in a whole new light.  In any event, here is one of the shots that I took.



This was shot with the lens nearly wide open, at an aperture of f/4.0.  I chose this shot in part because most of the elements were close to being in one plane.  However, although the dead leaf, or at least a part of it, is in good focus, the plant stems slightly behind it are not sharp.  I took another shot at f/16.


Now all of the elements are in good focus.  However, the background has become a distraction.  This is especially the case because the background is in the same general earth-tone color family as the subject.

Here is a third shot I took with the lens at f/8.0.


Although the stem slanting up to the right corner is still pretty much out of focus, the remainder is not too bad.  This is probably the best compromise under the conditions.

Here is another shot where I wanted to eliminate the background because of the distraction.


In this case I liked the way in which the stem had curved over.  Moreover, the stem and leaves were more or less all in a single vertical plane and I could position the camera at a point perpendicular to that plane so that the field did not need to be very deep to maintain all of the elements in acceptable focus.  This first shot was taken at f/11.  Unfortunately, the subject was positioned against a chain-linked fence and even though the fence is largely out of focus, I felt that it represented a significant distraction from the subject of the shot.

Here is a second shot at f/6.3.  The subject plant is still in pretty good focus, but the fence has become less of a distraction.


I would have preferred not to have had the curving band n the background (presumably another plant stem), but that was not an option.

Eliminating all background elements is not always a goal in macro photography.  Sometimes the background is so different in color that it is not a distraction and, in fact, may provide some context, as in the following photo.


And in the following shot, the reflections in the water provide some context for this pond scene.


In this example of the use of negative space, I wish I had managed to incorporate more of the reflected trees in the shot.

Finally, in the following shot the other flowers in the frame serve to show that the blossoms most in focus were not isolated but instead were part of a larger group.  The fact that the other blossoms were progressively further out of focus serves to provide added depth to the scene.  As I have mentioned before, I generally find it best to put into sharpest focus those elements closest to the camera, and that is what I did here.


This shot, taken a couple of summers ago, strikes me has having a lot of feminine elements, by reason of its pastel colors and preponderance of soft focus components.

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