How to Control Your Photograph’s Background

Having control over how much is in focus is a fundamental key to composition. Canon 70-200mm @200mm, 1/500th sec @f2.8. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Having control over how much is in focus is a fundamental key to composition. Canon 70-200mm @200mm, 1/500th sec @f2.8. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

One of the issues that frustrates many beginning photographers is how to control the background in their photos. Sometimes the background is not an issue, or is integral to the overall composition: most landscape photos fit this description; also photos with a flat subject plane (maybe an image of a building facade, for instance). But for many more images, having the proper control over your background can mean the difference between success and failure.

It can be a problem when too much of what’s in the photo is in focus: maybe you’ve shot a nice outdoor portrait of someone, but the trees behind them are in focus too, competing with your subject for attention.

In cases like this, depth of field is the key. The depth of field is how much stuff is in focus in front of and behind your focus point. The thing to remember: the smaller the aperture, the more stuff will be in focus, regardless of what focal length lens you are using. So for that outdoor portrait shot, pick a very wide aperture (f2.8 or f3.5, for instance) and balance the exposure with a faster shutter speed. This will result in a photo with a tack-sharp subject and a nice out-of-focus background (like my photo of the graduate above). 

The flip-side of this example is true too: maybe you have an image in which you need the background in focus for the image to work. There’s subject matter back there that is part of the composition. So here, you’ll want to slow your shutter speed down and use a much smaller aperture: maybe 1/60 @ f11 or f16, for instance. This will help you retain discernible detail in more of the image.

In the top photo, not enough is in focus. Bottom photo solves the problem: I want viewers to see the spiny spikes continuing the swirl pattern below. Top photo is @ f2.5, bottom photo @ f14, both 50mm Canon macro. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

In the top photo, not enough is in focus. Bottom photo solves the problem: I want viewers to see the spiny spikes continuing the swirl pattern below. Top photo is @ f2.5, bottom photo @ f14, both 50mm Canon macro. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

In both cases, having proper control over depth of field is the key to controlling your background, and hence your composition.

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:

Three Ways to Control Depth of Field at Epic Edits

Dynamic Depth of Field at YourPhotoTips

Using a Shallow Depth of Field for Portraits at PetaPixel

17 Examples of Narrow Depth of Field at Lightstalking


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.

10 Comments on "How to Control Your Photograph’s Background"

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  1. Bayou Bill says:

    So, let’s say you have two lenses that are exactly alike in every way, except that one has a minimum f-stop of 1.8, the other 3.5. Does this mean that, no matter what you do, it is impossible to achieve the same shallowness in depth of field with the 3.5 lens that it is with the 1.8?

  2. Yes. That’s one of the limitations built into the cheaper lens. We see it all the time when using 300 f2.8 (expensive) lenses for sports, vs. the 300 f4 (cheaper) lens for the same situation. The 2.8 lens is crisper and throws the background out of focus much better.

  3. Rachel says:

    When focusing, can it be the other way around? Focusing on the outside background and not more on the middle portion or should I just edit the middle part after having very good focus and depth on the main image/composition…I’m just curious though… ;D

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    cheers!

  4. Anne Cole says:

    Good explanation of photo focusing. Just wondering in auto-focus features. Which part does it usually focus?

  5. Whatever you have the focus sensor pointed at, whether good or bad…

  6. Peg Rack says:

    thank you for this quick tutorial I am trying to learn how to take better nature pictures, my dad was a very good photographer and I wish that I would have spent more time with him learning his tricks while I still have the chance

  7. Thanks Peg. Glad you’re finding things that are useful on the site!

  8. Taylor says:

    This has been the problem I have bee trying to solve…

    ……..It can be a problem when too much of what’s in the photo is in focus: maybe you’ve shot a nice outdoor portrait of someone, but the trees behind them are in focus too, competing with your subject for attention….

    Your explanation and direction make sense to me (which is saying something as I could be classified as a photo illiterate, but I am trying).

    Back to work on depth of field.

    thanks for putting the info out for public consumption

  9. Sam says:

    This is the problem i have with compact camera. Well, cant ask much for a compact also. But recently i tried canon s95, it give me the depth i want. Not as impressive as DSLR but good enough for me. 😀

  10. I just bought a DSLR but I think I still need a lens. I am learning photography by myself, and I am confused what kind of lens should I use as a beginner. my camera is nikon d3100

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