Have you ever been excited that you captured a really cool street portrait only to notice later that there’s something growing out the side of the person’s head? You were so excited that you caught the moment and the expression but you just did not see that street sign that looks like it’s growing out of your subject’s ear.
In this article, I want to run through some of the techniques and tricks I use to help avoid distracting backgrounds when doing street photography.
Fill Your Frame
Fill the frame. This was drummed into me when I started working as a newspaper photography cadet. I was instructed, rather than taught, that whatever is in the frame must be relevant to the story the photo was illustrating.
This is still the most important aspect of composition I follow strictly.
Look at the edges and into the corners. Whatever is in the frame needs to support, not distract from, whatever it is you are photographing. If you keep this in mind, you will find the distractions most of the time.
With a lot of street photography what’s in your frame will be changing rapidly so you must be attentive. You must anticipate what’s going to happen next.
The Decisive Moment
Wait for the action to peak. Capture your photos when all the elements fall into place, not just some of them. If you have a photo lined up and someone you didn’t see coming walks into your frame, wait until they have moved away. If you take the photo with them visible in your frame you will most likely delete it later anyway.
So much of the best street photography is about waiting and being patient. Anticipate when the action will be at its best, then take the photo.
With this photo of the samlor (tricycle taxi) rider, I waited a while for the traffic to clear. The street behind him is typically quite busy and cars in the background did not enhance the photo at all. So, I waited and chatted little with the rider.
I knew he would not be moving off quickly and that he was comfortable with me photographing him. I wanted to include the shadow in a horizontal composition and anything like a passing car or motorcycle would have been distracting.
If whatever is passing by in the background is small enough, you might try to time your photo so the offending distraction is hidden behind the subject. To make this work your timing has to be just right.
First, your subject will need to be large enough in the frame. Getting closer to them can be to your advantage. When there is no way to avoid passing pedestrians just wait until they are behind your subject.
With this young girl performing in a street parade there was a constant stream of people moving behind her. I had taken a few photos from further back but was having trouble isolating her in my frame. I noticed she was quite enjoying being photographed so I moved in a little closer.
From this angle, she filled more of my frame and I was able to hide people passing by behind her.
Prevail With Your Position
Pick your spot carefully. When you’re concentrating on a single subject, move around it, or them, until you are satisfied with the background. Don’t just stand and take a photo from the first position you think of as often it is not the best.
As you move about, watch the background in relation to your subject. Often you will be able to avoid distracting elements by cropping them out our obscuring them behind your subject.
This Kayan girl was sitting outside her home. The front of the home has a small stall where they sell trinkets. I did not want that clutter in my portrait, so I moved. I got creative with my point of view so I achieved the clean background I wanted.
Scout About to Get Minimal
I love a minimalist background. This can be a challenge in street photography.
Look around where you are photographing. Find a place where there’s contrast in the light. Maybe where people are walking in the sun and the background is in the shadows. If you expose for the brightest areas the background will fall into darkness in your photo and disappear.
Alternatively, look for a situation where your main subject will be in the shade and the background is in bright sunshine. This will produce the opposite effect if you expose well. Set your exposure to be correct for the shadow area and the bright background will overexpose, isolating your subject. Or you can expose for the background and make a silhouette.
When conditions are right the contrast doesn’t have to be extreme for this technique to work. With this photo of the steamed fish vendor at the market the background actually was quite distracting to the eye. It does not appear this way in the photo because the light on her and the lack of light in the background is sufficient enough to render the background dark.
Tweaking this a little during post-processing to make the background darker does enhance the effect. We do not see this scene naturally with our eyes like this. We see all the detail, but the camera does not. If you look for situations like this you will be able to create images with your subject isolated from the background.
Lens Selection Strategy
The focal length of your lens makes a difference. Working with a wide lens, you will see more of the background. With a longer lens, you will capture less of the environment.
Often with street photography, you want to include the surroundings for context, so a long lens may not be best. Using a wide lens may include too much and be distracting.
Experiment with different lenses to find a balance in your compositions. If a wide-angle lens is producing pictures which include too much background try a longer one. Move back from the spot you were photographing with a wide lens so your subject is still the same size in your frame with the longer lens. Can you see how different the background is then?
The narrower field of view of a longer lens will include less background than the wider lens. Read How to use Focal Length and Background Compression to Enhance Your Photos.
With the women at the bus stop (below), I only wanted to see them and the advertisement behind. With a wide lens I was seeing too much of the surroundings, so I changed lenses and moved back a bit. From further back with a 105mm lens, I was able to capture exactly what I wanted.
Brave the Bokeh
I know a lot of street photographers prefer to use a narrow aperture so focus is easier. This means distracting backgrounds are more common. Be brave, capture some bokeh. Open up you aperture and get precise with your focus.
You don’t need to work with your widest aperture setting. Find the sweet spot where the background is sufficiently blurred and still discernible. I can’t tell you what f-stop that will be, as other factors come into play too. Your lens choice, the distance between you and the subject, and subject to background will determine the amount of blur.
I like using prime lenses as it’s easier to get a feel for how much of the background will be in focus at various settings. This photo was made with my 35mm f1.4 lens set at f/4. If I had opened the lens up to its widest aperture setting, the background would be completely blurred and the context lost.
One of the most frequent mistakes I see students in our workshops make is not being aware of what’s in the background. It’s understandable that you want to totally focus on getting your subject looking the best.
But if you do not pay enough attention to the background you will often find it protrudes, interferes, clutters and bombs where you least expect it. Compose so that everything in your frame is relevant and adds to the picture you are making.