Cleaning the Background

Usually I don’t like wildlife images with a subject on an absolutely “creamy” background unless this effect was obtained in a natural way — with a lens and not through postprocessing. When the background isn’t detracting from the subject, I rather prefer that the objects in it, such as vegetation, soil, or rocks, are blurred but still a little recognisable than when it is looking just like a homogenous colour backdrop. In certain cases, however, I agree that the background has to be tweaked after the shot. More often it is necessary in the images of small subjects created with use of a macro lens. Since narrow aperture and consequently greater depth-of-field are typically required in macro photography, the not very distant objects in the background may appear in the image not blurred enough. Such photographs are then criticised as having a disturbing, “busy”, background — when the separation of the main subject isn’t sufficiently provided.

Macro photographers often use artificial backdrops — prints or colour paper — that they put behind the subject before making the shot. Obviously, this is possible only with static or slow-moving and not shy subjects, such as flowers or caterpillars. In most other situations the background can’t be controlled that well, and the photographer is confronted with a dilemma — to leave it as is, or to improve it in a graphic editing software. Sometimes the background looks so “dirty” that there is no other choice than to work on it in Photoshop. In my photography practice this need usually arises when I have photographed and underwater subject with a macro lens.

I use a small water tank that I built extra for this purpose from acrylic glass. Since I currently have only one such tank, it is quite wide, so that I can put also larger fishes and amphibians in it. For small animals, there is too much space, and this causes two problems. First, it is difficult to compose an image because the animal has too much freedom to move along the front glass and quickly leaves the view field of the lens. Second, the subject tends to swim away from the front glass thus leaving the area in focus. To solve these problems, I use dividers which are also made of acrylic glass. One of them limits the distance from the front glass and is made non-reflective — to absorb flash bursts.

When I photograph water animals in this tank, I fill it with clear water. Nonetheless, swimming dust and dirt particles can’t be avoided completely: Even when the water was absolutely clean they emerge as soon as the animal and the decoration objects are there. These particles appear in the photographs due to magnification by the macro lens. Air bulbs are a much worse problem: When the water was fresh and cold, they remain there for hours and appear in the photographs. When they are out of focus, it is even worse because they look like snow flakes. All this you can see in the picture below.

Of course, as in so many images captured with macro lenses, the background in this one looks very homogenous, and the foreground appears as if sticked on it. However, there is nothing wrong because the same effect can be observed in macro photographs that didn’t undergo the post-processing described in this article, i.e. that remained as shot.  Also, with this photograph of the newt, if we compare the original with the result, we would recognise that in the original the foreground was also looking “sticked”. The only difference was that the background was extremely messy. In the process described in this article I solved this issue, and, as you see below, the result was worth the efforts.

 

Read the complete article Cleaning the Background.

About Arthur Tiutenko
Nature Photographer and Illustrator

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