Girl in red and white sitting on bench

Background and Foreground – Most Asked Questions

For me, the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. ― Diane Arbus

I’ve read many articles and there is a lot of ambiguity on this topic. I tried to pick out the most asked questions to answer. In my opinion, there is no right or wrong way of taking pictures. You should be as creative as possible and understand that it’s okay to break the rules.

1. Where does the foreground end and the background start?

I don’t think there is a clear definition. You can’t say precisely ‘my foreground ends right here’ or ‘my background begins exactly at this point’. I like to think that the foreground is your subject and the background is the rest of the picture. You may have heard about positive space and negative space. Just to keep things simple, think of your subject as positive space and everything else as negative space.

The foreground and background interact with each other, hopefully in a way that helps your composition. Unfortunately, more often than not, this is not true. Why? Because most of the time we get excited about a shot and don’t even think about the distractions in the background.

2. When does a background become distracting?

There are so many scenarios. I can only list a few and can’t stress enough how important it is to carefully check you background before pressing the shutter button.

   – Watch for lines or objects such as trees and plants cutting through or coming out of your subject’s head. Of course you can do this for comical effect.

   – Avoid bright colors such as reds or yellows in your background. They will compete with your main subject.

   – Make sure that your background is not brighter than your subject.

   – Check the corners of your picture. Usually unwanted objects love the corners. And you may not even think to look.

3. Should my background be blurred or in focus?

It depends. If you want to isolate your subject from the background, you may want it blurred. If you are shooting a landscape photo, having everything in focus may be the way to go. To achieve an out of focus background, you can use a large aperture (small f number). This may be challenging on a bright sunny day; so, a neutral density filter can help.

4. Is it okay to have an out of focus foreground?

No. Sorry for being so direct but I find out of focus foregrounds very distracting. Why? Because that is not what the human eye sees. Look up and imagine you are taking a photo of what you see. Do objects within a few of feet look out focus? No. So imagine looking at a photo right now and all these objects are blurred. That doesn’t feel natural, does it? I also mentioned this in one of my older posts.

5. How can I make my subject pop?

Whale watching boat in the harbor

There are many ways you can do this. Here are a few:

   – Isolate the background by making it out of focus as discussed above.

   – Make sure the subject is well lit.

   – Try to frame the subject. Frames are a great way to draw attention to your subject. Look for windows, door frames, trees, etc. They don’t even have to go all around the subject. Take a look at the photo above. See how nicely the trees are framing the boat?

   – Keep an eye on the colors. Not much you can do about the subject’s color, but you can try to find complementary colors in the background such as yellow/blue or red/green.  Keep in mind, any bright colors in the background will take away from the attention to the main subject.

I hope after reading this article you are thinking more about the foreground and background. I know it’s complicated. Ask the Balcony any questions you may have.

Happy spring and keep shooting!

For more photography tips and ideas, check out my latest photography book, Picture (Im)perfect Photographynow available at Amazon.


2 Responses to “Background and Foreground – Most Asked Questions”

  1. Mark77 | August 15, 2013 at 4:13 PM #

    Love the girl in red. That’s not a real dog, is it?

    • Andrei | August 16, 2013 at 10:13 AM #

      Ha ha… No, it’s a stuffed animal. Glad you liked it.

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