Two different photos of a domed building and rose
Lens-Artists,  My photography,  Photographic techniques

Gallery: look behind [you] your subject

Ansel Adams

There are some tricks we can learn to improve our backgrounds. One obvious one is blurring them, using a wide aperture or zooming in from a distance to decrease the depth of field. An even simpler one is to change our viewpoint, stepping a little to the side perhaps to eliminate distractions. Time of day plays a part too; as the light changes, so the scene does too. And taking a minimalist approach eliminates all distractions, allowing your subject to shine.

For Ritva’s Lens Artists challenge on this subject, I’ve chosen some examples to illustrate the importance of backgrounds.


When we take a photo can make all the difference. This first example, from my recent visit to Kotor, has nothing to do with photographic skill and everything to do with timing.

Looking down at old buildings around a square with clouds covering the mountains beyond

When I got up on my first morning in the city it was raining. But I was impressed, despite the poor weather, by the view from my hotel window, looking across the Square of Arms to the Sea Gate in the town walls. Beyond lay the Bay of Kotor and mountains draped in clouds. I had to take a photo to send to my husband at home.

But within half an hour the scene had changed, and I took a very different photo. On this occasion the background itself became the subject of a photo. Both images have something to say about the town. One focuses on its attractiveness and history, the other on the impact tourism is having here. One is a simple record of a place, the other makes a statement about it.

Old buildings with a large ship behind

Depth of field

This is a favourite technique of mine, enabling me to isolate a subject from its background. At the same time, I usually like to ensure that even when blurred the background is still clear enough to place that subject in context. Here are a few examples:

Poppy among other flowers and grasses

The blurred background in this shot of a poppy at Klis Fortress in Croatia retains enough detail to show that it is just one among many wildflowers.

In this shot of an iris in the botanic gardens in Cagliari I’ve used a blurred flower in the background to frame the one that forms the main subject of the photo.

Single iris with blurred backdrop of others
Bare branches with blossom

This Himalayan cherry in the mountains above Pokhara in Nepal is shown in context thanks to the blurred mountain in the background.

I had fun with this one! A restaurant we visited in Seattle had a display of fishing flies. Using a macro setting I photographed the one nearest us so that it filled my frame. The customers sitting beyond it can still be made out, despite being blurred. As a result the scale of the fishing fly becomes confusing and messes with the viewer’s perceptions. I can assure though you that this is a real fishing fly and only about an inch in length!

Fishing fly with blurred background of restaurant wall and customers
Small green lizard peering over a wall

Sometimes however it can be effective to blur the background so much that nothing is clear. Here the little gecko I spotted at one of our Madagascar hotels is allowed to shine without any distractions.

Making choices

We always have choices in photography, and that is true of our backgrounds as much as any other aspect of the shot.

Here are two shots of the Bowman sculpture in Chicago. On this occasion I was torn. Do I photograph the sculpture itself, framing it with a blurred flower in the foreground?

Statue of a Native American on a horse
Blurred statue of a Native American on a horse with a flower in front

Or do I use it as a background for the flower itself? I tried both versions and kept both, unsure which I liked best. Which do you prefer?

I faced a similar dilemma a few years ago photographing the dome of Les Invalides from the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris. I’ve used both versions in my feature image, and again, I’m interested to know your opinions on the two shots?


Where you position yourself when you take a photo influences the background, of course. Making the best choice can often change an ordinary shot into one with much more impact.

This dragonfly was resting on a pole at a jetty on Skadar Lake in Montenegro. It posed patiently while several of us took photos. My first version from straight on has a nicely blurred background but it could be anywhere.

Dragonfly on a wooden pole
Dragonfly on a wooden pole by a lake

By moving around to the side I could include the lake in the background, a version I personally prefer even if it shows less of the dragonfly. Which is your favourite?

By getting down low when taking this shot of the sculpture of Helmer Hanssen in Tromsø I’ve been able to include the mountains that surround the town. Although some buildings are still visible, the mountains dominate and are an appropriate background for this polar explorer.

Sculpture of a man with a sled and dog
Large red flower against the sky

And shooting this hibiscus in Bandipur, Nepal, from below ensured there are no distractions in the background, only sky.

Background as subject

In certain shots however, the background is the subject, most notably when photographing a dramatic sky. It helps to have something in the foreground to give context, but the background is always the star of the show!

In this sunset shot, taken at a hotel in Negril, Jamaica, the chairs and umbrella in the foreground add interest. But we’re in no doubt that this is primarily a photograph of the sky, even though that is the background element of the image.

Sunset over the sea
Conical mountain against a sky with orange clouds

And here in Arenal, Costa Rica, at sunrise, it isn’t the volcano that forms the main subject but the beautifully lit clouds behind and above it.

While I’m always drawn to bougainvillea and have many photos to prove it, in the case of this shot it was the beautiful wall behind that ensured I added this example, in Cartagena, to my collection.

Red flowers against a blue wall


Finally, we can have some fun with editing software or apps and change the background completely. I photographed this farmer at a demonstration of traditional sugar cane pressing in Costa Rica. The background was of the corral in which the demo took place. Using an app called ‘Remove BG’ I was able to change that to an outdoor setting, with a background taken in a completely different country! Now he poses with a backdrop of the Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca, taken from a window in the former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The edges aren’t perfect, despite some follow-up remedial work in Photoshop Elements, but it shows what can be achieved.

Man in a hat by a fenceMan in a hat in front of trees and mountain

And here’s my friend Karl messing around at a viewpoint above Kotor Bay. Or is he about to tumble backwards down into the streets of Chicago?!

Man pretending to fall backwards at a scenic viewpointMan pretending to fall backwards with city skyscrapers below

I had fun with those final images, but I also enjoyed being challenged to consider the decisions I make about the background to my images. Thank you Ritva, this has been a great topic to explore!


  • Annie Berger

    So, so many facets to take into account when taking a picture. I’m realizing that now the more we travel and also after reading your essays on photography, Sarah.

    You may think I’m crazy but I prefer the blurred Invalides building in the feature shot but the blurred flower in the sculpture shot.

  • wetanddustyroads

    Thank you for explaining how you can make a background part of your photo. I like your flower photos where the background is a little blurred. You make photography sound like so much fun Sarah!

  • Sofia Alves

    Interesting and full of wonderful photos, I really enjoyed your take on the challenge, Sarah. I think both photos on your feature image work and they are excellent examples of how important it is to think about backgrounds. The cruiser is an eyesore and your gecko, adorable.

  • Leya

    Excellent post, Sarah – examples and explanations all well thought through. That cruiser really hit me, and I loved your last experiments! The wall in Cartagena is a dream to photograph against. Loved it from start to finish.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Ann-Christine 😊 You can imagine how much that cruise ship hit me too, having seen the view without it just 30 minutes or so earlier! Cartagena is full of beautifully painted walls, but that was one of the loveliest I found there 🙂

  • Klausbernd

    Dear Sarah
    It doesn’t matter if the background is kind of real or edited with AI or with other means of manipulation. What matters is the aesthetics of the picture.
    We would say, the background has to make the foreground to stand out.
    Thanks for showing us your pictures
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, I agree with you about how the background has to make the foreground stand out most of the time, but sometimes it’s fun to turn that around and make the background the main subject 😀

  • Mari Nicholson

    I’m just so jealous! But I will try and remember your hints and advice on how not to have unwanted objects in a photo (something I still manage to do without even trying). Great post.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari 😊 Now we have digital photography it’s possible to check for those unwanted objects even AFTER we’ve taken the shot and have another try!

  • Anonymous

    Enjoyed very much reading this post. I am trying to improve my photo taking, even though most of the time I can’t see my phone screen very clearly. You have given me food for thought for how to consider the scene in front of me instead of just stabbing the button and hoping that I will have something decent to look at when I get home 😆

    One of the things you mention that I am trying to do more of is moving my body – changing the height at which I snap shots.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, I’m so pleased to hear you think these tips will be of value to you. I know what you mean about seeing the image in your phone screen, that’s one reason I rarely use my phone for ‘serious’ photography and always buy a camera with a viewfinder as well as a screen! Good luck with your efforts 😀

  • Marie

    While I love the detail of the dragonfly, I think I prefer it with the lake background. I’d be drawn to that Cartagena wall too!

  • pattimoed

    What a great collection, Sarah, and wonderful descriptions of your compositional techniques. Really terrific. And then, you included the experiments, which are a lot of fun. The one with Karl is priceless!

  • grandmisadventures

    This is such a fun collection- I love how you bring out what is in front and behind and the completely different perspective it gives. And the picture of your friend Karl is fantastic! 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Meg 😊 I can always rely on Karl to clown around a bit – I’m sure given time I could find some other fun backgrounds for that shot!

  • photobyjohnbo

    Well done, Sarah! Nice work on the background replacements, especially the gentleman from Costa Rica.
    I just got done commenting to Leanne Cole about how I hope I’m over taking photos of people with fountains and Eiffel Towers coming out of their heads, but I’m not immune from other background faux pas. >grin<

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you John 😀 I guess we all make mistakes from time to time, however experienced we are! Glad you liked the Costa Rica edit, I had fun with that one 😀

  • restlessjo

    A thoughtfully composed post, Sarah, and I enjoyed your examples. I thought I’d prefer the unblurred photo of that sculpture, but when I looked again it was the unblurred flower I preferred. And that cruise ship- an abomination!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Jo 😊 It’s interesting that you changed your mind on the sculpture on looking again. I can never make up my mind on those two! And yes, that ship is indeed an abomination. I didn’t mind the smaller ones that came in to the port so much, they were much less domineering, but that particular one was way too big for such a small town!

  • Andrea R Huelsenbeck

    I prefer the photo at the top where the dome is in focus. I like the one that shows the dragonfly’s wings better than the one that shows the lake. And flower vs. sculpture–I love both!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for the feedback Andrea 🙂 Opinion seems to be split on the sculpture but most people so far have preferred the dragonfly with the lake – it’s all so subjective!

  • Monkey's Tale

    I always love macro flower shots with a blurred or slightly blurred background, but I do prefer the statue with the blurred flower in that example. Interesting how the background can add so much to a picture. Maggie

  • margaret21

    I think I need to come back to this post to squeeze the pips from it – you’ve been very thorough and interesting as usual. The one that makes the most impact is the cruise ship photo. It makes the point about their negative impact on the communities they call in on so very well, and with quite a light touch.

  • Egídio

    Excellent post, photos, and explanations, Sarah. All images clearly show how much care you put into capturing them. Now to your questions… I prefer the flower over the sculpture. The dragonfly with the lake in the background is perfect!

  • Alison

    Fascinating Sarah, I can see you’ve had fun with this challenge. Love how you changed the flower and statue around. Remove BG app sounds interesting and fun. Also the view from your room in Kotor is fantastic. The same thing happened in Sarande, with the cruise ship in the bay.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Alison 😀 Yes, I had lots of fun, especially with the Remove BG app. The cruise ships are really too much for Kotor, or at least huge ones like this are. It’s only a small town and gets a bit overwhelmed with all the groups being shown around. It’s much better in the evening when they’re all back on board!

  • Ritva Sillanmäki Photography

    The header says it all.Your editing of locations behind the subject demonstrated how they tell the story – how much it shows us. You know your way around this theme, no doubt about it. Great response. Your photos are always high standard.

  • Sue

    Oh, fantastic post, Sarah…a very comprehensive discussion on backgrounds and how they can contribute to or distract from the main image. Certainly inspiring!

  • Anne Sandler

    This post educates, inspires and is just beautiful Sarah. I appreciate how you changed the background in two of your pictures. Putting a subject in a different background sure changes the context. Regarding the Bowman sculpture, I like the sculpture as the subject and therefore in focus. Great response to this challenge.

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