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Jim Zuckerman on Composition: Backgrounds


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BY Jim Zuckerman September 10, 2014 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to use background elements to create engaging images in the fifth article of his sixteen-part series on composition.

Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.


Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.


Backgrounds are as important as subjects in making a picture successful. Don’t underestimate their importance. If they are messy and there is a lot going on, the distracting elements tug at our eyes and pull our attention away from your subject. Just as you carefully consider the choice of which subjects to shoot, at the same time you need to carefully consider the background. For example, is it too light? Too messy? Too attention grabbing? Does it have distracting lines or colors? Is it too sharp or not sharp enough? Are there patches of brilliant color that eclipse a more muted subject? Is there a pole or tree sticking up from behind someone’s head?

The background should either complement the subject or be an integral part of it. If it doesn’t do either, the composition will be compromised and the photograph won’t be successful. It is surprising to many photographers that backgrounds can make or break their pictures.

One of the best ways of eliminating distracting elements behind a subject is to throw them out of focus. Not a little out of focus, however. The background should be so out of focus that nothing is recognizable. This is done with a telephoto lens in conjunction with a large lens aperture. The longer the lens, the more out of focus the background will be.

Look at image 5.1. This shows a close-up of a great blue heron in attractive lighting, but the background is extremely busy. There is so much going on there that our concentration on the bird is misdirected to the background over and over again. Compare this unsuccessful image with 5.2. This heron has an ideal background. It is unobtrusive and complementary. Our eyes have no place to go but to the subject itself. The sunrise lighting is also quite beautiful.

Figure 5.1

Figure 5.2

The background doesn’t have to be out of focus to be complementary, of course. There are other ways of incorporating attractive backgrounds into your shooting. Compare photos 5.3 and 5.4. The trees behind the giraffe make a terrible background, and that makes this picture worthless as a fine art image. Photo 5.4, on the other hand, is an image in which the background forms an integral part of the subject. The main subject is the giraffe, but the environment gives the image a sense of place in a very attractive way.

Figure 5.3

Figure 5.4

Figure 5.5

A great subject that may touch you as a photographer or as a person isn’t enough to make a picture work if the background is a mess. For example, in image 5.5 the horse is stunning, but the background is a disaster. The pole, the power lines, and the fencing all detract from the horse. In addition, the lighting isn’t flattering because the shot was taken at midday.

Boldly defined horizontal, vertical, or diagonal lines in the background also interfere with subjects. They are usually distracting because they are so graphic that they divert our attention away from the subject. When you see prominent lines behind a subject, and those lines are not part of the subject itself, they vie for your attention. Image 5.6 is a case in point. The background is so distracting that it’s hard to keep our eyes on the subject.

Figure 5.6

Even a pattern that has defined lines can be very unattractive as a background. Compare the two pictures of my wife dressed in an Indian sari, photos 5.7 and 5.8. I photographed her against a French door, and the horizontal and vertical lines are terribly distracting. In addition, those lines are very light, and that compounds the problem. I used Photoshop to place her in front of a classic door in India, and now it’s perfect. All I did was change the background.

Figure 5.7

Figure 5.8

A single graphic line can be a problem in a background, especially if it is much darker or lighter than the surrounding area. It appears more pronounced and is therefore distracting. The shadow under the stone ledge that you can see in photo 5.9 behind the kids I photographed in Beijing bothered me for a long time until I became proficient in Photoshop and cloned it out, as you see in photo 5.10. We can’t control the backgrounds behind our subjects in many situations. Therefore, Photoshop becomes essential in giving us what we wanted in the first place but couldn’t make artistically correct without post-processing, due to circumstances beyond our control. The picture of the Chinese kids offers an example of this.

Figure 5.9

Figure 5.10

Another issue that impacts good composition is having a background that is lighter than the subject. Study 5.11, and you can see what I’m talking about. The very light sky diverts some of our attention from this castle in Poland. There was nothing I could do here except replace the background in Photoshop, which is what I did in 5.12. The difference is remarkable.

Figure 5.11

Figure 5.12


Go to the next article in this series: Classic Landscape Technique

Read the full series:

  1. The Rule of Thirds
  2. Leading Lines
  3. Framing
  4. Graphic Design
  5. Backgrounds
  6. Classic Landscape Technique
  7. Foregrounds
  8. Moving into the Frame
  9. Patterns
  10. Lines
  11. Balance
  12. Distinctive Perspectives
  13. Symmetry
  14. Light's Influence
  15. Negative Space
  16. Breaking the Rules

Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Jim Zuckerman

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