05 April 2017

Your canvas

It's like painting

Past week I was in the zoo, busy with one of my favorite pastimes: shooting photos. Actually it's often the combination of the zoo and the shooting that makes it something I like. It's a calm and relaxing hobby this way. Anyway, this blog is not about what what relaxes me, even if I would say that photography can be a very relaxing hobby. This blog is about photography and so we need to talk about photography. And about painting.
Why painting? Because photographers and painters do have things in common. For example: we both "create" images. A photographer creates the basic image in less than a second. Usually that is, if you go for long exposures then it might be longer. But in general well under a second. And a painter takes slightly longer for that. Perhaps its better to say he takes much longer, but slightly sounds more friendly. And we're friendly people here, right?
Anyway, the painter is completely free to put in the image all he can imagine. A photographer would have to find what he imagines. The painter starts with an empty canvas, on which he can start painting his subject and the surroundings or background of that subject. A photographer gets subject and background at the same time, in that less than a second time, which we call shutter speed.
Now, where am I going with this story? To the background. You see as I was walking around and merrily snapshotting away, I was at a certain spot where I thought: "This will never be a good photo."

What's there in the back?

Ostrich head
Ostrich with green background
The reason I thought so, was because of the background. And it shows that even a not so fast learner like me can make progression. This might have been the first time I was obviously aware of what the image would be, and looking beyond the subject.
Take a look at an earlier photo of an ostrich. The photo was taken in Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam. I live close by, so am there regularly, resulting in many times the same kind of photos. Trust me, I can give you more photos of ostriches if you want.
As I suppose you do not want more photos of the ostrich, I'll get back to the photo and what's there to see. Obviously, there is the head of the ostrich. Behind the ostrich is a blurry green and dark background. Some light fence near the bottom and above its head a few light spots. As you will probably see, the ostrich mostly contrasts well with the background, making it stand out. The green background suits this photo as it does not distract from what the photo is to show, namely the head of an ostrich.
Them the fence and the bright spots above the ostrich. These make less nice backgrounds. In fact if this would be mostly filling the frame, I would have called this a failed photo. Given that they are limited in how much they cover of the frame, they are less disrupting. They are still distractions, but in my humble opinion do in this case add a little to the photo. Wonder why? Because it breaks the monotony a bit. Of course, this is a subjective opinion, but as it's my photo, I am the one deciding whether it remains there or not.
Should you wonder if I thought all this when I took the shot? No, I did not. I just clicked and when I was at home and looking over my photos, deciding which ones to keep and which ones to throw away, then I found this one fine enough to keep. Here the background makes a mostly non-distracting contrast with the subject, allowing the ostrich to easily grab attention.

So, blurry it is!

No, not so fast. As I found out, there are almost no absolutes in photography. The blurry background worked well for the ostrich head. But it adds no context, it tells nothing about where the photo was taken, nor conveys much feeling. There you have the other thing your background can do. Your background is adding the context. It might not always make the subject stand out more, but it still provides information about that subject.
Monument in Salzburg
On Kapitel Platz in Salzburg
Look at the photo I made on a business trip to Salzburg. Standing on the Kapitalplatz, near this ball. Now, this is a typical point and shoot image. I was there, and clicked. There is no thought in it about composition, and it's in general not a very interesting photo. Except of course to me, as it is a reminder of my time there. And in this case it also serves a bit as an example in a blog.
This background is very different from the previous example, which is caused by the aperture. Well, the camera I used for this photo would not even allow me to set aperture, so I would not have been able to change it, should I have wanted. But unlike the ostrich, this photo is better served by this background. The ball is rather boring and the surroundings are adding the context this photo needs even for me. You can see tourists, part of the square and on the hill you see Festung Hohensalzburg. It gives an indication about where this ball is. It probably implies I was there on a holiday or so, having a good time. I can tell you, a bit to the left next to the tent on the photo was a terrace where they sold Schnapps und Bier. They had quite tasty stuff there and as I was there on Friday afternoon after work, I did enjoy the drinks.

What does not work?

Birds on stones
Crappy photo, obviously
This! This does not work. In this quite old image, I suppose I wanted to have a photo of the birds. Besides the birds not even making a nice composition as they are now, the background ruins it completely.
The background does not help at all with emphasizing the subject. In some points it does not even contrast nice. You can also see there is a lot in the background. There are the stones in different colors, a fence, foliage, some water at the front, a bucket on a pole, branches poking in the frame on the sides. A building in the back. And somewhere between all that are also a few white birds.
This photo lacks everything, but just imagine that the birds would be sharp on it. And then imagine the background would mostly consist of these orange stones. I bet you can imagine that this "adjustment" would make the photo less confusing. There are at that point two things. The structure of the orange stones and the contrast with the white birds. I doubt it would work well, but it would be a much less confusing photo with more chance to lead the viewer towards the subject.
The current background does not add contrast, it does not add context, it helps in no way to bring over anything. I doubt you can find any painting that is as messy as this one. Here, I picked the wrong canvas.

Choosing your canvas

So, we're back to the painter. Like a painter we could put anything we want on our canvas. But unlike a painter, a photo comes with subject and background at the same time. Even if we can replace backgrounds, or subjects in post processing, we cannot really do that when we make the photo. So while we are much faster filling our canvas, taking less than a second, we are usually taking much longer to search for a suitable subject. Completed by a suitable background.
When making a photo, try to look behind the subject. What is there? Does it distract? Does it help the subject stand out? Look through your viewfinder and try to determine for the items in your background whether they add something to the photo. And if not, see if you can leave it out of the photo. But also, move that camera away from your eyes for a moment and look around. Would another angle give you a better background? Or perhaps stand on another spot and get a different context on your photo. You're like a painter and before you start, it can be well worth the time to look and think what you want on your canvas.

Note 1: I regrettably rarely take much time to think about my photo, but they say that you will get better at it if you keep trying. And the fact that I actually had the thought last week, shows I am slowly improving. And if I can, anyone can.

Note 2: I will grab my pitch fork and torch and hunt down anyone even thinking of sharing that last picture. Unless you accompany it with a photo that is more horrible. And I challenge you to find one that's worse than this.