How backgrounds can make or break a photo

Photographers can often focus so much on the main subject that they can overlook or ignore what is happening in the background. In truth, the backdrop of a photo can make or break the quality of the image.

The main thing about backgrounds is that they are too often cluttered with distracting elements. The stereotype of this is the tree or telephone pole protruding from your subject’s head. There can be a lot of things, say, on a wall or in the set beyond the main subject that can distract from the main subject. There are several ways to alleviate the situation.

Alayssia Townsell, a graduate of McNair High School in Stockton who attends UCLA, stands in front of Stockton City Hall in downtown Stockton.  The background is too busy and distracting in this photo.

If you have a cluttered background, try switching positions. Although you may need to move to another location, sometimes you just need to move a few feet or even a few centimeters to get a better background. Sometimes just a step or two to the left or right or shooting from a lower angle can eliminate distractions. Often, shooting on your knees can do the trick.

You can eliminate distractions simply by getting closer. By filling the frame with your subject, you can get rid of disturbing elements at the edges by cropping them and others that you can hide behind the subject.

Stockton's Erik Andersen skates under cloudy skies at the Lathrop Generations Center skate park in Lathrop.  Clouds announce visual interest in the background.

You can also reduce distractions by eliminating them. A small aperture creates a shallow depth of field. A telephoto lens will further accentuate the effect. By bringing your subject into sharp focus, anything in the background should become blurry and unrecognizable and help highlight your subject.

While distracting backgrounds should be avoided or eliminated, there are other times when they can add to the aesthetics of your image. A sky full of fluffy clouds, a brilliant sunset, or a field of colorful flowers can beautify a portrait or panoramic image, as long as you make sure no tree branches stick out from someone’s ear. a.

Sacramento's Winnie Williams takes a selfie in front of a field of daffodils on the opening day of Daffodil Hill near the Mother Lode town of Volcano in Amador County.  The flowers create a colorful and picturesque background that adds context to the photo.

The main key to a perfect background is to be careful. A rule of thumb of photographers is to look at all four corners of the frame before pressing the shutter button and only when you are satisfied that all distractions are dealt with, then you can take the shot.

Record-breaking photographer Clifford Oto has photographed Stockton and San Joaquin County for over 37 years. He can be reached at or on Instagram @Recordnet. Follow his blog at Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at

Stewart C. Hartline