When we see something that catches our eye, it's very tempting to focus on that and start shooting from where we're standing. This is a mistake.
A good subject is not enough to make a good image.
It's very important to stop and give the scene some time, see beyond the obvious and pay close attention to the background and the edges of our frame. They can make or break an image.
Even the most beautiful subject will make for a bad image with the wrong background.
Take for example this beautiful tree I encounter every day on my morning walk. I made these two images from both sides of the tree. Look at the big difference a good background makes!
The images are similar: the shape of the tree is pretty much the same, the subject doesn't change, but the background does. One has a cluttered and messy background that distracts us from the main subject, while the other one is simple, clear, and to the point: it shows the beautiful tree standing by itself next to a path to nowhere on a foggy day.
These are some ideas to get a consistent, simple and non-distracting background:
As we just saw on the example of the tree, sometimes all we need to do is to move to a different spot where we can capture our subject with a good background. If possible, move the subject itself as well.
2. Try different angles
Sometimes a low angle can remove most of the distractions from the background.
I made this image above of two trees from ground level, almost touching the snow, in order to get that clean background I was looking for. In this situation, it helps to use a wide angle lens like my Rokinon 12mm f/2.
Try high angles as well, even framing the subject from above.
3. Use the weather and time of the day to your advantage
The fog is a photographer's best friend, but rain can help remove distracting elements too.
Shooting at night can potentially help as well, as long as our subject is still illuminated and the background isn't.
Clear skies are perfect to capture silhouettes early in the morning or late in the evening, free of distracting clouds.
4. Shoot at a wide aperture on a fast lens
Using a wide aperture and getting close to your subject makes the background go out of focus. If we are close enough and / or the lens is fast enough, this can completely blur it out thus getting rid of all the distractions.
At the very least, it will make it less apparent.
5. Use a backdrop for still life and portraits
Another option is to use a backdrop behind our subject. This is mostly limited to still life and portraiture, though.
6. Try a Long Exposure
If you have distracting scattered clouds, a long exposure might help creating a much simpler background. It can be as short as a few seconds or as long as several minutes, depending on the speed of the clouds.
New to Long Exposure Photogaphy? No problem, you can download my free ebook about Long Exposure Photography.
The background is one of the most important elements in an image, never neglect it. It is as important -if not more some times- than our subject itself.
Next time you are facing a scene, try to change the background and see if that makes a difference. Move, try different angles, a long exposure or to shoot it with a fast lens. If you are still struggling with the background, trying again at a different time might be the answer.