The background of a photo can enhance or detract from the subject. It is sometimes the reason the subject is interesting. Background can add color, shadow, mood to a photo. It can provide the background knowledge you need to understand the photograph. The background can also be the whole point of the photo. Here is an example of a photo I took on a lake in Northern Wisconsin. The trees in the foreground frame the real subject: the colorful chairs on a neighbor’s pier and their shimmering reflection in the lake.
Another example is this photo in which I was trying to capture the type of picture you might see in a hotel brochure: a darkened but pleasant room with a bright window in the background, through which the setting of canoes at a lake can be seen.
In travel photography, especially during tourist trips with loved ones, the background is often a famous monument, scene, or building. In the foreground is your “subject” – a person or group from among your travel companions, but really the person is included in the frame to say “Look where I’ve been!” The background in these photos provides the context for the individual in the foreground. A classic example is a visit to Machu Picchu. I took a picture of my son Jayme on the Inca Trail above the ruins.
I’ve been thinking about backgrounds and what they add to a photo, and thought of something that is in the background of almost all photos taken outdoors – the sun. Sometimes it’s the sun rays we can see slanting down to the ground when the sun itself is hidden behind a cloud. Or, it can be a completely cloudy day, but still it is the sun that allows us to see and call it “daylight.” The sun creates shadows, contrast and other effects. Some of the most beautiful photos have a sunrise or sunset in the background, with hues of pink, orange and purple. Sometimes that’s all there is in the photo, but often there is a “subject” – someone or something in the foreground that acts as a focal point. Even so, the background sunrise/sunset is the real reason we take the photo. In these cases, we can see how the background sunrise or sunset changes or enhances the subject, creates a mood or simply beauty. One of my favorite things to take pictures of is trees with light filtering through from behind, set as silhouettes against the burst of sun rays or the colors of a sunset, or the contrast of a bright blue sky with the bright orange of autumn foliage.
Recently I took a walk to a favorite local park; it was nearly sunset and dark clouds were gathering overhead. The sun low in the sky behind this tree created an eerie, but beautiful effect, with the bright yellow sun in the middle fading into orange, purple and dark blue, which were provided by incoming storm clouds.
It’s obvious that without the sun, we couldn’t take pictures at all without a flash. Yet we don’t think about the sun in the picture unless it is doing something spectacular (like showing its colors as it sets), or when it is ruining our photograph because we can’t see the subject’s face because the sun is directly behind them.
When the sun is a background feature that enhances the subject, the sun that is the real “star” of the photo (no pun intended) and without the light of that particular time of day, I would probably not even have thought to take a photo at all.