What the background?!?!

Bad backgrounds can suck the life out of a good action shot.

One of the things that separates great photographers from good photographers is how the former uses and builds upon the backgrounds that they have to work with. It’s easy in the excitement as a good photographer, to get lost in the action and keep hammering that shutter till you get a good shot. But a great photographer pre plans the moment, thinks about the whole composition and then waits for the action to fill it.

This point came up in a recent talk I gave about Sports Photography, where I was asked by a guest, how much did I pre plan during an event or did I just hope for a good shot?

I’ve talked a lot before, on my YouTube Channel, about how I don’t rely on luck and neither should any photographer who wants to be good.

The short answer is yes I do pre plan my shots. The long answer is much longer. And it ALWAYS starts with the background.

If you take a recent Allianz Premier 15s Rugby Match I worked at, I knew I was going to spend the majority of the game with my back to one side of the field. This is simply because on one side of the pitch is a huge grey building and a road.

Loughborough Lightning and Worcester Warriors at Loughborough University, Loughborough, England on 27th February 2021.

While the shot above is still a good action shot, its not great in my opinion simply because of that awful background. The players just get lots in it and it doesn’t nothing for the action.

However by working from the other side of the pitch OR by shooting up to the try lines I can remove the ugly building and keep the images looking strong.

Flying Tackle during the Allianz Premier 15s match between Loughborough Lightning and Worcester Warriors at Loughborough University, Loughborough, England on 27th February 2021.

This shot above, is taken from the same seated position opposite the ugly grey building but by shooting up the field of play, it allows me to get a background that essentially disappears and highlights the action.

Looks much better right? Same sport. Same kind of action. Same teams. Same position. Different background.

As a sports photographer, you need to be considering your backgrounds. ALWAYS! If you’re like me, you’ll do it before you ever pick up the camera to your eye. It’s the difference between making images and taking images. A great photographer will make an image rather than simply take it. That starts for me, with picking the right backgrounds out.

3 Top Tips for Picking Backgrounds.

  1. Less Distractions

Look to keep your backgrounds as clean as you can. If you’ve got some distracting or ugly in the back of frame then move and get it out of your background. Unless you’re allocated a specific shooting location, there’s no reason for you not to move and put yourself in a better position.

2. Get Low And Mask

Sometimes distractions at eye level can be removed by being lower to the ground. Not only does shooting from a low position help you make athletes look more powerful, but it also helps to remove visual distractions in the back of frame. Another good trick is to mask off distractions by using foreground elements to hide things. For example, using a person in front of you to effectively hide an ugly tree in the background while you focus on the action happening in front of you is a really nice way to clean up an image.

3. Take a moment

Unless you’re photographing Usain Bolt in a 100m race, you’ve probably got more time than you think to make a shot. 30 seconds thinking and looking could save you 20 minutes in post production trying to clean up an image. My biggest advice to photographers is to be patient, take your time and figure out your backgrounds before you start shooting. It can dramatically change an image and your work!

1 Comment

  1. Rod Sloane

    Well said Ben. Watch out for those bins and skips that only appear when you look at your images back at home

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