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Interested in the rest of my series on light? Check them all out here!
Now that we’ve learned about how to understand the natural light we are working with, we can move on to other factors that also impact how light or dark a photo feels. One of the key considerations is the background of your photo. By now you’re probably already feeling overwhelmed with all of the things I’m telling you to keep in mind. Never fear! All of this takes practice.
You won’t be able to think about all of these things at your next shoot – it is too much. I know it was for me. The best piece of advice that I’ve received about photography is to go into every shoot focused on one technique. Once you get that technique down, pick a different technique for the next shoot. Soon you’ll have mastered all of these skills and will be effortlessly combining them.
Trees can be tricky when it comes to lighting. Look at the two examples below. On the left, Z is in front of clump of trees that have a fair amount of leaves, but aren’t totally covered. They are interspersed with bare trees, which allows light and sky to come through. On the right, Ange is in front of a very thick line of trees that are totally covered with leaves. You can see how the thickness creates almost a black hole behind her. Ange was doing a spooky Halloween shoot, so it was fine that the trees created the dark and creepy background. However, if you want the photo to feel lighter, you want to avoid such a thick line of trees. Bushes can also create a similar affect. Anything that is such a dark and dense material that it seems to suck up the light.
Depending on how bright and cloudless a day is, sometimes the sky can basically become a blank white space. In terms of simple lighting, this will obviously help brighten up your photo. A danger of this is that it can be distracting or even wash out other features. In the photo of Olivia on the left, you can see the bright sky at the top, but it is broken up by the building and tree line. It also helps to keep Olivia’s white headband from being absorbed into the sky. In the photo of Sarah on the right, the sky is almost the same color as her hair. There is enough contrast so we don’t lose her hair entirely, but it is something to keep in mind with folks with light or thin hair or if someone has a white accessory that will be directly against the sky.
Snow works just like the bright sky, except it is (generally) underneath your subject. Snow reflects light (which is why is can be so blinding), so keep that in mind when shooting. Bright sun on snow can create over exposure or blown out details. If you shoot sun in open shade, it can work to reflect light off of your subject, making them look even brighter.
Putting your subject in contrast with a bright color can also help to brighten up your photo. The light, electric blue background behind Olivia, on the left, gives her a bit of a pop. Think how different that photo would look if she was in front of a navy wall. Or a black wall. That doesn’t mean you can’t put a subject in front of darker walls, but it is a consideration. On the right, you can see some of the tree created black hole darkness in the upper part of the photo behind Laura. However the pink flowers being closer to the camera not only put them in focus, but also help to draw your eye to the lighter part of the photo.
There are a few considerations to keep in mind when you are shooting in front of a brick wall. One is the actual color of the bricks and a second is how much light is actually on the bricks. Both photos show bricks in open shade. On the left, Randy and Tasha are in front of a more faded wall during golden hour. Olivia is in front of a much newer brick wall not during golden hour. I don’t think her photo is too dark (and it absolutely matched the lighting throughout the rest of the gallery that I gave her), but it is just something to consider.
You should also consider that bricks (and other objects) will sometimes reflect onto your subject. If you look at Randy’s face on the left, he looks redder than Tasha because he is getting red reflection off the wall. If I was taking this photo again, I would’ve had them turn to help mitigate some of that redness.
None of this is to tell you absolutely not to do something. You may find yourself in a situation where a darker background is your only option. Or you may feel like it adds aesthetically to your photo. That’s totally fine! This blog post is just to help you know how your choices will impact your overall. In future posts we will cover post-processing and some of the ways that you can compensate if you find yourself with a photo you love that just feels too dark.
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Hi, I'm Dylan, a photographer in the Philadelphia Metro Area. I love iced coffee, red wine, and am always up for binging Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec..