BE THE CHAMP! - Backgrounds
‘It doesn't matter what the background is, it's having it there that endows the photo with depth’
WE LOOK at photographs on flat surfaces – the page of a magazine or the screen of a computer, tablet or phone. But the real world is not a two-dimensional place.
One of the best ways to make our images stand out is to make them feel three-dimensional.
This does not mean delving into the world of stereo photography. Stereoscopy or 3D photography rears its head about once a decade in underwater photography, as a new generation of photographers mistakenly thinks that this is what their images have been missing. It isn’t.
I actually quite like it for underwater documentaries, but for still images, no thanks.
The most recent buzz about 3D underwater still photography was about four years ago. We were all told it was the future. It has all gone very quiet now. Before that it was the 1990s,
when Les Kemp produced some really pleasing AV shows using a stereoscopic Nikonos.
On both occasions it was the limitations of the systems that was the big disappointment. Wide-angle is king under water and the wider the lens, the more dramatic the image.
Super wide-angle and 3D just don’t get along on land or under water, and that means that the pictures that work in 3D are not the most dramatic wide-angle images.
But while I don’t like under water 3D photos, which need special screens, projectors and fiddly glasses to view, I do think there is much to be gleaned from the thought process that leads photographers down this route.
The fact is that most images look better the greater the sense of depth they portray.
FROM A TECHNICAL perspective, we construct wide-angle photos in two layers. We almost always combine a foreground lit with flash with a background illuminated only by ambient light.
However, from an artistic perspective we don’t want to produce images constrained to just two layers. We should aim for wide-angle images with as great a feeling of depth as possible.
For inspiration in this area, have a look at the work of classic landscape painters, such as the Brits JMW Turner and John Constable.
Both were masters of transforming a flat canvas into an image with depth. It is one of many reasons that their work is so compelling.
In wide-angle photography we usually use the background elements to create this feeling of depth. This is easier than using the foreground elements, which we must keep reasonably parallel to the camera to light them evenly with our strobes.
For me, the key is to develop a mindset that is aware that a great subject is not enough for a stunning wide-angle image. We must be constantly seeking those background elements to complete our compositions.
Typically, it doesn’t matter what the background is, it’s having it there that endows the photo with depth.
Elements such as a silhouetted reef outcrop, or specific outlines of seafans, kelp, schools of fish, distant divers, dive-boats, surface texture, sunbeams and more – all give depth.
Multiple elements are great, as the more layers we add (within reason), the more the viewer has to explore.
When shooting scenery I will often look for a background first, such as a bommie or overhang, and then search around its base for a foreground subject. A good background is often harder to find than a foreground, so they are worth seeking out. Also, once we’ve found the background we can usually shoot several different foreground subjects against it.
DEPTH IS NOT only important in wide-angle images, we can incorporate it in macro photos too. When wildlife photographers on land shoot with a telephoto lens, they convey a feeling of depth with a narrow depth of field.
The trick is to keep the subject sharp and frame it against an out-of-focus background to create the feeling.
Some photographers take this further still by including an out-of-focus foreground too.
These are ideas we can adopt under water, but they are slightly harder to pull off because we still have to light everything evenly with flash. If we’re not careful, the foreground will be too bright and the background too dark.
The solution is to light the whole scene with soft, even illumination, which means using two strobes, using diffusers and using them in 10 and 2 o’clock strobe positions.
We should set the strobes on low-ish powers, so that we can open up the aperture and create a reasonably narrow depth of field.
How open? That depends on the size on the subject we’re shooting. The smaller the subject, the less we need to open the aperture.
DEPTH CAN ALSO be injected into wide-angle foregrounds, this time making use of the steep perspective of the lens, rather than a narrow depth of field. When we have a wide-angle subject stretching away from the lens, this can really drawn the viewer’s eye through the image.
The challenge of these foregrounds is not composing them, but lighting them. The solution is to create a pool of illumination in front of the camera, using a technique called Rabbit Ears strobes.
This produces an even exposure of strobe light from close to the camera, penetrating more deeply into the scene.
We create this light by hoisting our strobes up high above the housing and positioning them about shoulder width apart.
Start with them aiming straight forward and then slowly angle them down, taking pictures until the light they produce fills your entire composition, just filling the bottom corners of the frame.
They will end up angled down about 20°, but it will vary depending on the length of your strobe arms and the camera-to-subject distance.
A successful wide-angle image may be lit in two layers, but we should strive to create what should feel like a fully three-dimensional scene.
Start by always trying to combine foregrounds with a background, don’t settle for just shooting a great foreground subject.
Backgrounds are often harder to find, which is why many dive-sites are famed for wide-angle: Boo Windows in Raja Ampat, St Johns Wood in Egypt, Babylon in the Cayman Islands, kelp forests and jetties. These sites are loved not for their foregrounds, but for picturesque backgrounds.
Depth is only one of the factors that make photographic compositions powerful. I challenge photographers on my workshops to focus on it for a couple of days, so that it becomes part of their compositional approach, but after this to consider other factors.
Like any guide to composition, it must never be the only thing you think about.