Role of Photography Background

In photography background plays a vital role. Background makes or breaks the picture. This is why photography background is as important, if not more important, than the subject.

In this article, I will talk about subject and background interaction. I will cover the various type of photography background and for each type the properties these backgrounds could take. Backgrounds also include surrounding elements that are not the subject.

There are multiple types of backgrounds. I define these types of photography background in categories:

  1. Level of details;
  2. Wheel of tone/colors;
  3. Level of support.

Each of these categories has properties that in turns create impact on the viewer. I will go into these in further details. I will also provide links to other articles. In these other articles I will cover more facets of photography. These other articles pictures, are great examples supporting the background type I am describing.

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Let’s go through these background types in details:

Level of details: totally blurred.

Background Selection in Photography

Background totally blurred

This level of details requires a shallow depth of field and a greater distance between the subject and the photography background. This helps create a sense of depth and promote the third dimension. When the subject is particularly sharp or detailed, there is a greater separation between a totally blurred background and a very sharp subject. This, in turn, further increases the sense of depth. With a totally blurred background, the attention remains on the subject. There is no distraction. This is a very good way to communicate the subject’s importance.

Level of details: Recognizable

photography background: recognizable

Selective focus allow for the background to be recognizable

Photography Background Type: Recognizable

This level of details requires the photographer to carefully select a specific aperture. Calculating the needed aperture or using live view on your camera helps make the desired effect. One of the great examples of this scenario is often used with wedding couples. The Bride in the foreground is perfectly sharp while the Groom in the background is not but still recognizable. When the Bride look like she is lost in her thought, this tell us that she is thinking about the groom. We are seeing the groom in her thought. This technique often create a sense of intimacy.

Level of details in the photography background: sharp

Photography Background: Clear and In Context

The context of the picture is clearly recognizable.

Photography Background: Clear and In Context

When the level of details is sharp, with a sharp subject, this creates a greater harmony. This does not promote a separation between the subject and the background. Sometime, harmony is more important than separation. In landscape photography, there are other techniques to create this separation between foreground and background. You might need to use a tool like DOF Master to calculate the needed aperture to have everything sharp. Multiple factors are impacting the depth of fields. When the photography background needs to support the subject, I use this level of details.

By choosing the proper level of details for your background you can help support the subject. You can emphasize the separation, the intimacy or the harmony.

Wheel of tone/colors: complementary/opposite quadrant.

Photography Background: Blurred, Wheel of Colors

Complimentary colors create beautiful effects

Photography Background: Blurred, Wheel of Colors

Complementary colors help create a separation between the subject and the background. This is a powerful way to make the subject pop and enhance the third dimension. Complementary colors are opposite to each other on the color wheel. In black and white, this is simple. Black is opposite to white. Having a colorful subject on a black or white background creates the same level of separation. Separation increase the sense of depth, makes the subject pop and help direct the attention to the subject.

Wheel of tone/colors: same quadrant.

Photography Background: Blurred, Wheel of Colors

Similar colors create a sense of intimacy

Photography Background: Blurred, Wheel of Colors, Same Quadrant

As you can imagine, this promotes harmony and reduces separation. A good example of same quadrant is high-key (or low-key) photography. This also gives the impression that the subject blends in the background. Same quadrant will help you create calm and harmony in the picture.

Bright areas and warm colors attract our visual system. This needs our consideration. A blue subject (blue is a cool color) in front of a sunset (usually warm colors) might prove very distracting. The sunset could then overpower the subject.

Level of support in the photography background: Supporting the subject.

Photography Background: Supporting the Subject

When the background support and is in harmony with the subject

Photography Background: Supporting the Subject

Unless you want to create a discomfort, your background should support the subject or at least be neutral. A supporting background helps the subject and the message. This support could be direct or indirect. A mechanic, in front of a car with its hood open, is an example of a background offering direct support. We understand the story immediately. The same mechanic, sitting at its desks with dozens of post-it on the wall behind him is indirectly supporting the subject. More so if he is looking overworked.

Level of support in the photography background: Neutral

Photography Background: Neutral

White, grey and black background are always neutral

Photography Background: Neutral

A background with the level of details: totally blurred is a Neutral Background. A uniform pattern, like a brick wall is another example of a level of support: Neutral. Unless of course the subject is a Bricklayer!!! This type of background avoids any distraction and make sure that only the subject is the center of attraction of the audience. You cannot go wrong with a neutral level of support.

Level of support in the photography background: opposing the subject.

subject in opposition with the background

Create stunning pictures with a background opposing your subject

When the photographer choose to have the background opposing the subject, it is clear that the intent is to make a strong impression. By having the viewer stop and wonder about how the subject could be in this environment, the attention is kept longer. These pictures are usually well thought of and are purposely built to make this effect.

Another scenario often occurs when doing street photography. We often come across strange situations where a potential subject does not fit with its environment. These pictures are usually stronger.


From now on you can continue to travel the world with a camera taking picture. You will end-up with pictures that could be classified in either of these categories. Some will work well; other not as well.

You can also stop and think about it. You are in front of a nice subject and ready to shoot:

Consider the background:

What level of details would better support your subject? Then adjust the aperture or focal length to meet that level of details;

About the current wheel of tone property of the scene, Is this bad, good or great? Often you can move slightly on either side to significantly alter the scene. Could you consider coming back at a different time of the day to help from a different wheel of tone property? What would happen after a black and white conversion?

About the level of support, do you feel that the background is properly supporting your subject? Is this what you want to convey as a message? Again, changing your viewpoint or a different time of day might have great impact. In some situation, you could even consider asking the subject to move…

Making picture is about making decision that is impacting everything included in the rectangular shape of the picture. If it is in the picture, you are responsible for it. You better be ready to tell why you choose to include it in the picture. Unless of course you are just taking pictures…