Backgrounds for Nature Photography

We have all had the experience of taking the family to a commercial portrait studio to have some family photos made. We all get dressed up in our Sunday best, comb our hair and probably look and act as if we are going to a funeral rather than a festive photography adventure. Upon arriving at the studio, we are taken back to a dark room where the photographer has a myriad of choices for backgrounds. They have backgrounds from dark charcoal to various shades of grey and finally to stark white for those times where the subjects wants a dramatic high key effect.

So why all these choices, and why do so many of the background designs seem so simple? Well, first, color choice is important in complementing what the subject is wearing. The last thing the photographer wants is a clash of color. Colors which do not complement the subject only take away from the subject and are of no use. The second reason has to do with subject isolation and focusing the viewer toward the subject. If the background behind the subject is too busy, with too many distractions, the viewer of the photo loses connection with the subject. His eye bounces among all the distractions and not into the faces of the subject.

OK, so what does all that have to do with wildlife and nature? Well it's simple! The same concepts hold true. Suppose, for example, it is late in the spring season, the grasses and trees have taken on a rich green appearance and the bird's plumage is in full color. How can I as a photographer take advantage of this? How can I avoid the clutter? There are several ways: simplify the background, leverage lighting and add dimension to the subject to make it pop.

Simplify the Background

Because we almost never have the ability to change out backgrounds like a studio photographer, we have to carefully choose our backgrounds. We know that it is spring so, naturally, green would make a great background, but how do I get a green background without interference from tree branches and trunks? One way is to use a telephoto lens and shoot at a slightly downward angle changing the background of our image to the color of the green field. With a long telephoto, it is a subtle downward tilt of the lens. At the bottom of the article is an example of a background which uses a field of grass to create a green gradient.

Creating a green background might be interesting but there is something else to note about the photograph above. Note that the background is completely out of focus. This effect is caused by using a long telephoto which is positioned close to the subject. In this photo, the 300mm lens is only about 6 to 8 feet from the subject. Because of this proximity to the subject the photo has a very shallow depth of field and produces an out of focus background. In modern photography vernacular this effect is called "pleasing bokeh." Back when I started shooting in the early 1990s we called it anything but that fancy term. I think we called it shallow depth of field which produced and out of focus background. Anyway, I find the whole bokeh word silly to use because I didn't grow up with it.

It's All About the Light

There is one more aspect I wanted to talk about when choosing a background and that is lighting. Lighting is another element which can make or break your image and background lighting is no different. Take this image below, for example. In this image the sun is lighting up the background heavily and more subtly lighting the foreground. Again the camera is tilted down here to maximize the out of focus flowers in the background. Also, a very shallow depth of field in the foreground give this image an artistic look. Granted, this is a rare treat of sunlight, but that is what we are looking for in our photographs. We are looking for something unusual and rare in our backgrounds. We are looking for something to make our subject come alive on the computer screen or in print.

When All Else Fails Try to Make the Subject Pop

There are times, especially in wildlife photography where no matter what you do, you are going to have limbs and tree trunks running through the heads and bodies of animals. Not literally of course but we have all seen images where it looks as if a tree limb is running right through the head of a bird. Here is an image below illustrating this point, but I have done something to this image to dramatically cause the subject to pop and diminish the effects of a poor background on the subject.

In this image, I have done two things: first, I took the shot as a ray of light burst through the scene to the left of the bird. This overexposed the bird and forced the background to go subtly dark. That was done in camera. Next, in post, I further darkened the background causing the bird to pop from the background. In the old days of dark room, we called this "burning in the background", and I guess the term is still used by some even with the digital technique. Wait, before you ask, no, burning in your background is not unethical. Journalists have been doing this since photography started. In fact, this technique was one of Ansel Adams common go to tricks in the darkroom.


Honestly, there are techniques to be learned to help in the process of making better backgrounds, but the best tool is your own brain. Constantly look for better angles which provide the right background for the subject. Watch how the lighting changes at a location and scout out each location before you go. This can be a real bonus when photographing nature. The angle of the sun is very important in your photo's background. Finally, get out and practice, practice, practice! Over time it will come together and you will understand how backgrounds make or break your photograph. Photography is a life long journey of learning and I by no means have come to end of that journey. I will continue to push myself to learn and I hope you do as well. To see images used in the original blog posting, please visit the blog here: Original Article and Photographs

Tufted Titmouse

Mississippi Kite

Photo credits: Matt Cuda.
  • Matthewcuda
  • Tobaccoville, United States

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June 13, 2015

Very useful article. Thank you.


June 12, 2015

Thanks for the nice comments. Debratos, you just have to take the good with the bad. Birds are very fast movers so your shutter speeds need to be kept as high as possible. When I am tripod mounted I usually try to keep it no less than 1/250 and when I am hand holding my camera, I go no less than 1/500 of a second and prefer to be at 1/1000. When a bird is in flight, I want a shutter speed of 1/1500 to 1/2000.

It is not uncommon to shoot hundreds of shots of a bird in flight and only get one or two usable images.


June 12, 2015

Lovely bird pics.


June 12, 2015

Great images! Your blog is so useful to me. Thank you!


June 11, 2015

You have some great photos of birds. I love to take birds but they always seem to be moving and my photos come out blurry.


June 11, 2015

thanks for the suggestions!