Clean Background isn’t the only way for photos with IMPACT

You have most likely heard the mantra, “Easiest way to make better photos: photograph your subjects against a clean background.”

They may even say, “99% of photos fail because the background is messy.”

I am here to tell you they are right and wrong. For the beginning photographer it is much easier to simplify a background than to take a complex and even cluttered background and make it work.

Egypt—Missionary Mike Edens (left) worked closely with Egyptian Baptist pastors trying to enhance their discipleship and pastoral ministries. These pastors—(left to right) Mikhail Shehata Ghaly and Anwar Dakdouk—took MasterLife discipleship training in Cyprus during 1984. [photo by Don Rutledge]

What my mentor Don Rutledge taught me was that backgrounds give context.

Seth Godin [photo by Stanley Leary]

Having a clean background makes the subject pop out, but where are they? What are they doing?

Israel—Missionary kid Sommer Hicks plays on the rocks of the sea of Galilee with her dad, Ray Hicks, in the background. [Don Rutledge]

Don taught me that it is a matter of composing to make sense of a scene and also waiting for the “moment.”

Appalachian migrant family in Ohio during 1968. [photo by Don Rutledge]

Depth-of-field—is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image. Most photographers use a shallow depth-of-field to clean up their background.

Fireman [X-E3, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS, ISO 200, ƒ/4.2, 1/75] [photo by Stanley Leary]

The closer you get to something and the wider the aperture the shallower the depth-of-field. Also, you are removing context.

Don Rutledge photographed many stories about the struggle for racial equality and justice in the South during the height of the civil rights movement. This image reveals the dignity of men and women who had long been denied their rights as Americans – and as human beings. I think this is from Martin Luther King Jr funeral. [photo by Don Rutledge]

You see it is seeing all those people’s faces behind this man that helps give more context for this photo.

March 1985, was when Don went to Ethiopia to cover the hunger problem. Here volunteer nurse Sally Jones holds an Ethipian child and comforts the child in the midst of other babies who are being held by their mothers. [Photo by Don Rutledge]

It is seeing all the people in the background and their expressions that helps photos many times.

Poland [photo by Don Rutledge]

Don had the patience and ability to see everything inside the frame. He taught many photographers how to see the edges and everything in between.

While legislators around the nation were debating the need for rat-control laws–and disputing their funding–Don discovered these two youngsters who proudly displayed the results of their morning hunt. In that section of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1968, rats were not particularly difficult quarry to locate. [photo by Don Rutledge]

I think it is the background that helps make many of Don’s photos. Had he followed the advice you hear about simplifying the background he would have never been the communicator he was.

It is the background and everything around a subject that can give context to a moment.

Surgeon Tim Pennell was able to get five of his colleagues from Bowman Gray School of Medicine to commit weeks of vacation time and thousands of dollars to meet their Chinese counterparts. [photo by Don Rutledge]

Without the women in the background with the nurse’s hat on you might not get from the photo that this photo has something to do with healthcare.

Siberia—Working with outsiders means listening and being heard, according to Eduard Genrich, of Second Baptist Church in Novosibirsk. People here say they are encouraged and helped by outsiders, but taken advantage of by some. [photo by Don Rutledge]
L/R Laura Standard, Almond Standard, Pam Pullen (Almond’s daughter) & Christine Burton (Almond’s sister) & Kyle Standard (Nephew of Almond) & Rick Standard (Almond’s Son) Almond Standard built his log cabin home himself. It is located in Tignal, Georgia. [Nikon D2X, Sigma 15-30mm, ISO 100, ƒ/13, 1/4] [photo by Stanley Leary]

Don’t go out and shoot everything to include background. Clean backgrounds have their place.

Nikon D5, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG Art, ISO 140, ƒ/1.4, 1/100 [photo by Stanley Leary]
[photo by Stanley Leary]