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Building your scene back to front

Most beginners approach a photograph like this; they find a subject they want to photograph, bring the camera up to their eye, meter the scene for proper exposure, compose their subject in the frame then click the shutter button. After the photo is taken, a quick glimpse at the LCD screen on the back of the camera lets them know if the photo came out alright. If yes, they move on. If no, adjustments are made and the shot is retaken (if possible). Sounds familiar? That, my friends, is the anatomy of a snapshot.

The snapshot, something we all do. When all we want is a quick documentary photo, something just to record a scene or situation, the snapshot is quite appropriate. If that is all you want out off your camera, that's fine, you can stop reading here. Somehow I feel you want more from your images and for that you have to start thinking about building your images and that means approaching your scene like a pro. To do that you have to build your scene from back to front. Here is what I mean by this.

At it's most simplistic form a photograph consists of three main elements; your subject (the object of attention in the photo), the background (or setting in which this object resides) and the light (which allows us to see the object). Of course there are other elements to consider, but for the purpose of this tutorial we will be concentrating on these three.

Notice I listed the three elements in the most common order of attention most novices give to a scene, subject, background, light. For example, on vacation the husband will ask his wife (the subject) to go stand over by that landmark (the background) facing into the sun (the light) in order to preserve that little slice of memory for posterity sake. Again, nothing wrong with that if all you want is a snapshot but, since you are still reading, I will assume you are not happy with just a snapshot therefore I will give you a little secret (not really but it sounds conspiratorial, doesn't it?); reverse the order of the elements. It's that simple.


Without light, we can not capture an image with our camera. That is basic photography 101. Without light you also wouldn't need to worry about a subject or background either. Yet light is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp for a beginner. There are so many properties to light that we don't think about; color, intensity, angle, atmospherics, diffusion, reflection, refraction and so on. Don't worry, I don't expect you to know all this right now, but you should know that there is more to light than meets the eye.

As I tell beginners, you can not see light. Light is invisible. You can, however, see the effect of light. Light beams can be seen when it strikes dust particles floating in the air, that is an effect of atmospheric conditions. We can see shadows cast by objects that block the light, that is another effect. From this we can also determine the direction and intensity from which the light originates. As a photographer you need to start training your eye to analyze these effects as it will help you improve your abilities to capture a great image.

Really bright directional light un-diffused by clouds, or other materials, creates very sharp shadow lines. These hard shadows create a lot of contrast between areas of light and areas of shadow on our subject. To begin understanding light start by looking at the quality of the shadows cast by various objects. By observing the shadow edge you can determine the quality (hardness or softness) of the light. The softer the light, the softer the contrast. The softer the contrast, the more pleasing the image is to the eye.

Intensity is another aspect of light a photographer needs to understand well. You now know that really bright light creates really hard shadow transitions. It also makes people squint, which is not a pleasant expression to make as you are having your photo taken. While really bright directional light may not be the best kind of light for a photograph neither is light that is too dim. Sure there are mechanical techniques to overcome low light situations, but for most image-taking situations not having enough light does present a problem. We need to find that happy medium between too bright and too dim. Technically speaking, we need to find enough light that will allow us to adjust the settings on our camera to be able to adequately record a scene without adverse effects of camera movement. In other words, your shutter speed has to be fast enough to overcome camera shake.

With some experience and practice you can learn to judge the amount and quality of light and set your camera appropriately. In natural light situations you will also learn, from experience, how to move or angle yourself or your subject for the best light for the situation. Or, if time allows, the best time of day for great light. Once you have determined the right kind of light for your image the hard part of exposure is done. You can now turn your attention to your scene.


Your scene begins with selecting your background or the setting in which your subject will reside. Background selection can be as simple as a turn of the head. Look around, there are usually several suitable locations within a short walk of any location. You would be surprised how different a scene can look with a simple 180 degree turn. A good background can help tell a story, create a mood or emphasize the subject and, like light, there are countless variations and subtleties to consider that is beyond the scope of this tutorial. But, we do need to start somewhere and that somewhere usually starts with several artistic decisions that can be summed up into one question; how much of the background do you want to show?

The answer is not easy as there are multiple aspects to consider. First and foremost is the aesthetics of the background or how 'pretty' the background is. Beauty is subjective and you'll need to determine that on your own. Even a trash heap can be 'pretty' under the right conditions. Then there are distractions and unwanted elements to consider. Finally is how your subject will interact with the background. Thankfully you have several tools at your disposal to be able to effectively control your background; background to subject/subject to camera distance, focal length of the lens, the lens' aperture setting and camera angle. Let's look at these controls one at a time.

The closer your camera is to the subject the more space that subject takes up in the frame. The more space occupied in the frame by the subject means less room for the background. Your camera's lens plays a role here. The wider the lens the more of a view the camera can see. The more it can see the more background will be in the image. Transversely, the narrower the lens (telephoto or zoom lens) the less of the background can be seen by the lens. Lenses in themselves are a marvel of physics. By opening up the aperture (opening in the lens) the more scattered the light is entering the lens. This scattering of light causes background images to become soft or blurry, so if your background is not too pleasant simply blur it out. The last control is probably the most obvious one but one that suffers from photographer laziness; change your angle of view. It's amazing what a step to the right or left can do to a background. Likewise shooting upward or downward onto your subject. If the background is too busy just lower the camera and shoot up toward the sky. Suddenly that busy background is replaced by a simple, clean blue sky. Remember, a snapshot is normally taken from standing eye level.

The last consideration with a background is how the subject interacts with it. For vacation shots you may want to show your subject against that recognizable landmark. The trick is to balance the subject with the scene. You wouldn't want to lose the subject in a vast sprawl of background. Likewise visually busy backgrounds tend to draw focus away from the subject. Don't forget the ever famous faux pas, the pole growing from the head, or the increasingly popular photo bomber. Background color and exposure can also be utilized to great effect in creating pleasing images. Contrast of light on dark/dark on light is a time honored way of making a subject stand out from the background. Couple that with an out of focused background and you have the makings of a great photo where the subject is isolated and made the star of the image.


It is said that the viewer of a photograph should not have to guess at what the subject is. The photographer should know how to present the subject so there is no ambiguity. Easier said than done sometimes, but a good rule to keep in mind none the less.

Subject position can be as easy as asking a person to, "stand there and smile," or as complex as determining the best angle to capture that impressive landmark. Ultimately you have to work with what you are given. Hopefully by the time you get to this point all the hard work has been done and all you need to do is concentrate on placing your subject in front of the background and making the subject look its best. As with all other aspects of photography, understanding the fundamentals goes a long way to getting great results. Unfortunately there are no magic formulas or clever tips that can make you a master composer of your scene. The one good thing is that with today's modern digital cameras film is cheap.

One lesson I like to give beginners is to think in terms of problem solving. Digital cameras have a wonderful feature called a preview screen, that small LCD display on the back of the camera that allows you to view a small version of your photo. Take advantage of this feature and take a close discerning look at your composition. Look for the problem areas (tree branch sticking out of an ear, heads cut off, subjects obscured by unwanted elements, etc.) and fix them while you have the chance. Take another shot, check it again and, if it still doesn't look good, fix it again and take another shot. The trick will be in being persistent in rectifying problems and not just giving up and calling it quits because of frustration. Keep the above mentioned suggestions in mind as you work with your subject. Remember a single step to the side can make a big difference.

If your subject is another person you are in luck, you have a collaborator. Show them the image, point out what you don't like and together you can come up with a solution. By getting your subject involved in the process they become a partner and not just the hapless victim that got corralled into posing.

In Conclusion

Remember, work back to front; light, background, subject. That way by the time you get to working with your subject you can give your full attention to it. No messing around with settings, no moving them around, dragging them from location to location. By getting into the habit of working back to front as your skills improve you will be able to compartmentalize and control each of those aspects of your workflow, regardless of whether you work solo or with a team.


  1. great discussion, was curious about one effect that a wide angle lens has on blurring the background because of light scattering thru a wide aperature. Why doesn't the same hold true for the subject that is in focus? Why isn't the subject also degraded by the effects of "scattering light". Why does the scattering light only have an effect on those elements of the photo that are out of range of focus? Sounds like an engineering question, but thought you might know.

    1. There is a reason but unfortunately it is too lengthy and involved for posting as a reply here. For a full explanation do a search under "circle of confusion" and see how that relates to field of focus.


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