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.
What my mentor Don Rutledge taught me was that backgrounds give context.
Having a clean background makes the subject pop out, but where are they? What are they doing?
Don taught me that it is a matter of composing to make sense of a scene and also waiting for the “moment.”
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.
The closer you get to something and the wider the aperture the shallower the depth-of-field. Also, you are removing context.
You see it is seeing all those people’s faces behind this man that helps give more context for this photo.
It is seeing all the people in the background and their expressions that helps photos many times.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t go out and shoot everything to include background. Clean backgrounds have their place.