Controlling Your Photo’s Background, Part II

Sago palm as new fronds open. Canon 50mm macro lens, 1/100th sec@ f6.3, ISO 200. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Sago palm as new fronds open. Canon 50mm macro lens, 1/100th sec@ f6.3, ISO 200. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

After writing my last post about controlling your photo’s background with proper depth of field, I found myself thinking about other ways in which I go about controlling the background. The most important technique I frequently employ is simply eliminating the background altogether.

Sometimes the intricacy and detail in an image needs the simplicity of seamless paper (or a wall, etc.). I ran into this last week while shooting the newest photo of my much-photographed Sago palm. (If you’ve been reading The Discerning Photographer during the last month, you’ve seen my progression of images of this amazing phoenix plant that’s coming back to life after our hard winter freeze.)

I’ve photographed this plant up very close mostly, but now the overall sculptural quality of my Sago was suggesting another photograph: I wanted to shoot an ‘overall.’ But what to do about the picture-killing background?

Understand, there’s nothing wrong with my patio; I really love the space. But it isn’t related to what I find beautiful about the Sago. So I grabbed a light stand, spring clamp and an old piece of foam core to set up immediately behind the plant. The sky was overcast (good thing), creating a big studio softbox for the shot. As you can see from the result here, this gave me an extremely clean result that really shows off the delicate intricacy of this Pleistocene throwback.

I also wrote recently about Irving Penn’s influence on my work in a piece about abstract photography. Penn was a master of the simple, elegant studio portrait, always against a plain background. His still lifes are also masterpieces of understatement, letting the form of his subject speak for itself. I was thinking about his work after shooting these purple cabbages out of our garden. My wife had pulled them up once things got too hot and they sat for a day or two on the counter in the kitchen. I was passing by when the window light was especially soft and then I saw the photo. Again, a simple piece of foam core, but this time as a surface; and only two lights: the window light, and a white mailing envelope used to bounce light back into the other side of the cabbage. I grabbed a stool to stand on and tried not to tip over as I made these images.

Purple cabbage #1. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Purple cabbage #1. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Purple cabbage #2. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Purple cabbage #2. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

So you don’t necessarily have to have a studio to shoot ‘studio still life’ work. It’s always critical to keep what’s most important in mind: the photograph you want to create.

The setup for my purple cabbage photos, right on top of the kitchen sink. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The setup for my purple cabbage photos, right on top of the kitchen sink. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related articles on the web:

Irving Penn still life images on Google

Irving Penn Photography at  fotolia blog

Pay Attention to Your Background at Epic Edits



Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

Post a Comment