December 2015 | Issue no. 20 | by mark shaiken

The first three issues of do :: or :: diso focused on the separation of the subject of the photograph from the background with light: either with flash on the subject or in post, to make the subject pop.  Backgrounds play such an integral role in the quality of the overall photo that do :: or :: diso returns to the subject, this time addressing the background itself.

Rich Clarkson, the famous sports photographer, preaches background, background, background, to a degree that in one of his classes, you might think you are there to learn how to shoot a background, and not how to shoot the sports action. And you would be correct. Emphasis on backgrounds is all about composition — work with your tool, the camera, to take the picture you want.  In sports images, as well as other photography genres, a background can make the image or destroy a potentially wonderful shot.

To address background, background, background, let’s look at some examples of what works and what does not and address why.

The color wash background:




Why it works:  the background introduces complementary colors, but because the background is completely out of focus, the eye is drawn to the subject.  The background enhances, rather than detracts.  The shirts of the fans in the stands or the distant trees become the photographic version of a water color background.

Contrast this with the “too much detail” picture.

too busy

The background is busy — too busy — and rather than a defocused wash, the detail in the background draws the eye to the background and away from the interaction between the ballcarrier and the downed defender.  The background detracts.

How to make the wash:  easy peasy – wide open aperture.  f / 2.8 if possible.

Is background detail always bad?  Not at all.  Sometimes the background helps to tell the story.

signage 270-200 f2.8


coach 2470 f.8

players 160 f 3.2

lights 70-200 f2.8

In these images, the background helps to amplify the story of the goal (banner in the distance) or  the coach (celebrating with the player), or the bench (watching the serve) or just the defocused lights of the scoreboard (illuminating the night game).

How to tell the story:  stop down the aperture — remember the more you stop down, the greater the depth of field.  Of course, stopping down the aperture will likely require a compromise on the shutter speed, but you can further adjust with a higher ISO if you are after an action shot.

Can you really decide what the background will be?  A version of this question is: am I really in control of my image? The answer should be “for sure” and certainly more so than you may think. At many sporting events, you can move around and thereby choose the perspective and the background — in other words you can incorporate the background in your shot and thereby compose the picture.  You are in control of the tools to do so – photography’s holy trinity:  aperture, speed and ISO, as well as your own placement.

tell a story

Look at the court where you will shoot.  What is in the background?  Can you incorporate it into a picture?  Sure thing.  Position yourself and then wait for it – here the 3 pointer.  By picking your place, you have created the shot.


scoreboard 160 f 3.2

Here, the background is the scoreboard, somewhat out of focus, in the distance beyond the volleyball net.  Position yourself with the scoreboard in the distance (and the school’s name on the net) and wait for the net action.


let some more signage in f 4.5 70200

Incorporate into the shot a famous part of the stands at Sporting Park (now Children’s Mercy Park)  called the Cauldron, and also known as the Blue Hell.  These shots can be the most satisfying because you decided what you want the image to be and then made it so, rather than just ripping off 10 shots per second and hoping for the best (nothing wrong at all with burst shooting to capture the action, but sometimes making the image rather than just recording the action can be very rewarding).

Finally, compare two similar tennis shots and decide which you like better and why:

fence and sign too busy 70200 f2.8

fence and sign 70200 f2.8

Both shots of the Chicago State tennis player, shot at an urban tennis tournament, incorporate cars, the fence, and some portion of the wind shield.  At this urban tennis facility, there is simply no place to stand to eliminate these elements.  To me, the first shot shows too much of the car, incorporates the concrete barrier on the edge of the court and the shrubs, and does not do a good job with the signage.  The second shot has the fence, a part of the car, the wind shield and more of the school signage, and just seems to work better.  The better shot is created by moving around until the perspective reveals a less busy background even in a difficult shooting environment.  If you are able to keep moving, you will give yourself different shots to choose from when the action ends and different spins on the background that will affect the aesthetics of the image.

Next month, do :: or :: diso takes a look inside the bag.





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