Background & Foreground

Photography is a diverse skill combined of many sub-skills which mixed together in the right amount gives you fascinating results. Depending on your style of photography you have to know the reality you’re dealing with of which you want its reflection to be captured for others to enjoy the moment themselves. I try every style of photography but mostly I stick to flora & fauna. To be successful here you have to know the ecosystem and the better you know it the more chances you will have to take great photos because you will know the most important information a nature photographer could hope to know:

When to be where?

Gaining experience with one’s equipment is of course crucial to be able to hit the trigger with the right settings so that the result is going to be a sharp, well exposed and well framed image. But there are plenty of variables you have to keep in mind. luck is a big part of the equation as well.

Some things apply to all kinds of styles of photography because they’re fundamental. The principle of a background and a foreground is utterly simple. You have a subject you want to take a photo of and there will automatically be a background if you take the shot. Have you given the background any thought though? Does it support telling the visual story of your subject?

Sometimes it can be essential for the story you want to tell. One great example is one of my older photos from Africa, 2012

(1) The background is essential for the story I’m trying to tell in this photo

The story of the pic above is about the “New Generations” that will lead the world in the future and which are shaped by the older generations, often times in very questionable ways.

As equal parts of the story, background and foreground create each other like yin and yang. Give both enough thought because they give each other the opportunity to exist and to tell the story as vividly as possible.

Let’s explore further and get practical…

Photography, no matter which style, always demands you to show complete commitment. When I am out on a photo hunt or take a photo for a client (which happens now and then) there is nothing more important then the final result. Except maybe my health is a little more important but not too much as I would take certain risks others might not take.

You don’t necessarily have to risk your own health but you have to be flexible and willing to be fully engaged in the practical reality of creating a meaningful photo.

Don’t be shy to risk the health of your camera, though…

I spotted a mermaid. Of that I was sure… following her into the ocean.

(2) Me lying down on the ground to take picture A (photo by Oliver Richter)

In this article I am going to show you one mushroom three times and each time it will be from another perspective. I shot all the pictures pretty much at the same daytime with the same light. The final results are dramatically different for a still scenery that simple. I have a personal favorite of the three perspectives which I uploaded to Instagram but you may disagree with me. And that’s correct as well, so be your own judge of what you like best but don’t be shy to explore all the possibilities of taking a photo. Like I did when I layed down on the ground of the forest as you can see in pic (2) above.

In picture (3) below you can see the final result of the picture I took in position (A). I do like this one the most because of several aspects in comparision to the other two images. First of all I really think that this is the strongest perspective to represent the magic of this mushroom and it’s slightly translucent cap growing on a fallen tree in the middle of a vividly lit forest with all the rays that find their way through the thick foliage of the surrounding treetops.

I use them as a background for this image because they will generate colorful and interesting bokeh. You can play with the aperture to increase or decrease the depth of field to get more or less blurred backgrounds. Decide whatever supports your story the most.

(3) Picture A — Leafs and patches of sky create the background

I decided to shoot this photo with an aperture of f/6.3 which means that it is slightly closed but still pretty much wide open to generate a fully blurred background. The higher the f-number, the more closed is the aperture and the smaller the rings of your bokeh. If you increase this number at some point the rings start to merge into complexer structures with more and more detail until finally the reality as you expect it appears sharp (maybe a little blurred depending on how the focus is set).

This aperture is not enough to render the whole mushroom sharp but if you have no tripod and you don’t want to increase ISO too much (which I definitely don’t want to do, even with an 80D), then you will have to keep your f-number low (aperture wider open) to keep your shutter speed high enough in order to get sharp images. That was a lot “if, then”.

What I also like very much about the result of position A is the fine rim light produced by the direct reflection of the sun. This is always a great tool to give a contrast between your subject and the background. It’s not always the story one wants to tell, though. So decide for yourself.

(4) Me crouching down to take picture B (photo by Oliver Richter)

Position B is in my opinion the most boring one of the three images. I crouched down and created a gradient of green with the small bushes and trees of the undergrowth of the forest. It’s not a bad background look and it certainly makes the reddish, white mushroom be distinct from the dark green, cyan background in a harmonious way regarding the color palette. But the whole composition of the image just doesn’t catch my attention and interest as it is more flat and a little too rough and uneasy. It’s difficult to describe what exactly I feel seeing it and you may disagree wholeheartedly with me.

(5) Picture B — The smaller bushes and lower trees create the background

The rim light still looks good from this perspective. You could maintain the height and angle of your current position and just move to the left or right to alter the effect of the rim light.

Just imagine the whole forest is your studio and you have to figure out how to use this one monstrous light in combination with all the complex colors and contrasts that go along with it.

(6) Me raising myself to take picture C (photo by Oliver Richter)

I am now raising myself a little to look down at the mushroom. This position is the easiest one and in this case not the most boring one as well. Keep in mind that I have a pro macro lense which gives me a great control over the aperture and thus my background.

The ground is always the backdrop which is the nearest to your subject. If you use a beginner wideangle or normal lens you might not create a background blurry enough to make your subject read. It always depends on what you want to achieve and what you like. Nothing is right or wrong but certain effects in imagery are just found to be pleasent for humans to look at. If you crouch or lay down you will create more distance between your subject and the background, thus it will become more blurry and your subject reads better than before.

Of course there are cases in which you want to show something from a certain perspective, so you have to limit the background but don’t fully disregard it. You can always experiment with the position and orientation of the camera to create whole new stories.

(7) Picture C — the fallen leafs on the ground create the background

In the last pic the rim light has grown very large and it’s falloff is softer. The bokeh of the background is honestly more interesting than the one of position (B). The top down perspective looks okay but I told myself a different story in the vision I had for this picture. In this story I was on the level of the mushroom and not on a level of a deer or a crouching human. Depending on your story you must decide what is right for you. Just remember that you have the whole pool of possibilities right in front of you.

I was a little shy myself to take pictures how they’re meant to be taken because it means that you have to forget your human worries for a moment and give the image itself all your focus and love.

Make yourself dirty, get uncomfortable, risk the life of your camera… you will surely take better pictures because of it. And please don’t sue me if everything goes wrong.

Thank you for reading,


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