Through the Looking Glass, Part 1

by Penni L Smith on February 16, 2013

We’ve all heard the expression, “I only have eyes for you,” meaning that the speaker is blind to everything but the object of his affection (even if that isn’t what the expression actually says, grammatically). Cameras are absolutely not that way. They are truly non-discriminatory, recording everything presented to them, and exactly how those things appear.

Your natural tendency is to look at the subject of your photograph. But your camera will see and record everything. To create the best photos possible, you need to train yourself to see as the camera sees, not as the half-blind lover does.

Conrad Roy Nelson, Dee Ann Smith (Bellows), Gladys M. Smith, Penni L. Smith, William L. SmithThis photograph is the only photo I have of my entire family together (I’m the baby). Yet it’s deeply flawed by that pole growing out of my brother’s head, the box sitting on my mother’s, and the set of legs about to walk into my father’s. These are simple things to fix, but first they have to be seen.

Before you take that next photograph, take a few seconds to actually examine the screen image. Look beyond and around your subject. Study the background. Ask yourself these questions in particular.

Is there anything protruding from behind the subject?

Poles, branches, limbs, whatever–make sure there’s nothing sticking out ridiculously from your subject. Even though we know it’s not part of the person or pet, it still makes for a poor photo. The results are sometimes sad, ruining one’s only family photo, for example. It may be worse when the result is humorous.

This problem can usually be resolved by changing your angle. Move left or right, up or down, until the protruding object is alongside or otherwise not a problem. If you can’t move, have your subject move.

Is the background distracting?

Even if nothing will be protruding distinctly from the subject, the background can be so cluttered that the subject is lost. Sometimes, you won’t be able to change things–you have a crowd behind the subject, for example. But if there’s anything you can do to make the background simpler, do it.

Another option in this case is to throw the background out of focus. This is more advanced, involving the elements of aperture and lens focal length, and is most easily done with an SLR camera. With a point and shoot, you may have a portrait shooting mode that might be helpful. Experiment.

Are there other background elements that are a problem?

Poor background before fixing, with exit sign and lightTake a look at this photo (cropped from a large group shot; the faces are distorted to make the people unrecognizible). Although the background is fairly plain and nothing protrudes, Same photo after editing to remove the poor background itemsthe exit sign isn’t attractive, and the light distracts. Unfortunately, due to the size of the group and the limited setting choices, this couldn’t be fixed at the time of shooting, so it took a little work in Photoshop to make the picture acceptable (the fixes aren’t so noticeable in the larger scene). Still, take a look and eliminate any problems that you can before you snap the photo.

See everything that is in the photo, the background elements that you normally wouldn’t notice, but which your camera will faithfully record. Spending just a second or two doing that, and making any needed changes, will go a long way toward improving your photos. Next time, we’ll talk about a couple other things to look at before you press the shutter button.

And don’t forget the most important thing–take lots of photos!

Have you had any precious images damaged by the photographer not noticing what was in the background? Or perhaps images made humorous by the same?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dee Ann Bellows February 16, 2013 at 8:09 PM

That is really a blast from the past

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Dotti February 17, 2013 at 8:20 PM

I loved seeing the picture of you and your family. I learned a lot but would like to see what you could do to this photo to clean it up and what program you would use.
Thanks

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