How to Use the Background to Create More Storytelling Images

Sometimes you’re so focused on capturing the moment that you forget to pay attention to what’s in the background of your photo. When you look at your photos later, you realize that there are all sorts of distractions in the background. One way to overcome these distractions is to use the background to help with storytelling in your photo.

Even though “the moment” is likely the most important part of your photo, good moments always happen in a place. Use the background to show where your moment or story takes place.

Think of People as Characters

The first thing I recommend is thinking of the people in your photo as characters. When you’re going to take a picture of somebody ask, “Who is this character and what are they doing?” When you answer these questions you’ll be able to choose a good background to help tell that story.

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This is a photo of my son. I wasn’t thinking of him merely as my son, but rather as a “hiker.” Thinking of him as a hiker helped me choose a background that portrayed the story of a hiker.

Two Ways to Choose a Background

There are two ways to choose a background for your photo.

  1. You can begin with your character and then choose the right background for them.
  2. Or, you can begin with a good background and then look for a character to put into the scene.

Finding a Background that Matches Your Character

Keep in mind the two questions to ask yourself; “Who is this character and what are they doing?”

In this photo, the character is my infant son and he is sleeping in a carrier on my wife’s back. It’s a cute picture, but there is no way to tell from the background where we were when this took place.

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This is a nice photo, but the background doesn’t add to the story.

We were on a camping trip and I knew I wanted a collection of photos that would show that. So I repositioned myself to find a better perspective and show the camp trailer in the background. This added a sense of place to the photo.

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The camp trailer in the background adds context to the photo of the sleeping infant.

Later on that summer it came time to chop wood for the winter. My little guy wanted to help daddy!

Naturally, I wanted a photo of him trying to chop wood. Depending on the perspective I chose there could have been trees, water, or a wood pile in the background. Since this is a photo about chopping wood, I chose to have the woodpile in the background.

There is even some wood in the foreground, reminding me of what a big job we had that summer!

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The huge pile of wood is a natural background for the little wood chopper. Plus it emphasizes how small he is comparatively.

Next time you’re about to snap a photo of somebody, stop and consider your background. Can you move around in order to get a good background to help with storytelling?

Finding a Character to Fit the Background

There may be times when you want to photograph an interesting scene but feel that there is something missing. Perhaps it is the character that is missing. When you come across an interesting scene, go ahead and photograph it. But also wait and allow that scene to become a background for some interesting characters.

When we visited Halls Harbour in Nova Scotia, the rugged shoreline was an obvious feature to photograph. I experimented with different angles and perspectives, but I knew I needed some good characters in the scene. Finally, a couple with their dog came walking down the shoreline. When the man began skipping stones out into the water I knew that these were the characters I was awaiting.

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These people and their dog were the perfect additions to the rugged shoreline.

Instead of just a photo of a beautiful landscape, this has become a story about a family on an adventure. To me, skipping stones into the water is a nostalgic sort of moment, so I decided this story looked best in black and white.

Make a story

When the tide was low we could walk out into the harbor amongst the ships that were now resting on the ground. Again, this was an interesting scene that just seemed to be missing a character. Then my son came tip-toeing through the mud and became the perfect character to fit the scene.

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When I let my imagination carry me away, I pretend that my son has pulled the plug in the harbor and all the water has drained out. He better sneak away before he gets caught!

Using framing

On a trip to Niagara Falls, we ducked into a building to get some relief from the cold wind and mist from the falls. Through the windows, we could see the falls and a rainbow that was produced through the mist. I wanted to take a photo but waited until my kids went and stood in the window. This allows the falls and rainbow to make up the background while my kids are the characters in the scene.

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The characters in the foreground allow the viewer’s attention to be drawn to the falls and rainbow in the background.

Plan ahead

In these next two examples, I used our house as a background for the photo. We were getting ready to move in the spring and I knew we needed a few more photos, by which to remember this old house. So I was determined to use our house as a setting and photograph more scenes with it in the background.

That winter, we built a snow hill nearly as tall as the house itself. That was a perfect opportunity to photograph an exciting event with our home in the background.

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A low angle helped to capture this epic moment right in our front yard. The snow hill towers in front of the house in the background.

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Our kids will always remember their first childhood home (and the fun they had there) when they look back on these photos.

Next time you come across a nice scene, go ahead and photograph the scene by itself. Once you have done this, you can look for a character to add to the scene, allowing it to become a background for their story. This is a perfect approach for both landscape and street photography. Choose the background and then wait for the character to come along.

Symbolic Backgrounds

So far, all of the backgrounds in these photos have been literal scenes. But you can use a background to give your story some symbolic meaning as well. You do this by finding a background that makes you think deeper than the literal object itself. For example, a sunset in the background isn’t just about the sun, perhaps it’s about “romance” or “a happy ending.”

In this example, my wife is tying up vines in a vineyard. This is a job that needs to be done in the spring before any green actually appears on the vines. There really wasn’t anything nice near her to use as a background, except golden light from the setting sun.

To me, vineyards are about long days of outdoor work, and the romance of shared wine. The warm setting sun was the perfect symbolic background to express these feelings.

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The golden sun in the background of this photo is symbolic of the day’s end, and the romance of wine and vineyards.

When you’re photographing a character doing something interesting, ask yourself if there is anything in the background that adds symbolic meaning to what they’re doing.

I have lots of photos of my kids reading books. The following photo is an example of a very boring background that does not help to tell a story.

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This background is distracting. The bed leg is growing out of their shoulders and pulls our attention away from what the kids are doing.

You can come up with some great backgrounds for people reading books. A library or a coffee shop would be two good choices for your background. But these are obvious choices and perhaps you could choose a symbolic background instead. Think about the nature of reading and how a person grows as they learn.

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This is exactly the sort of place that many people would sit and read a book. There is something about old leather chairs that invite you to nestle in and read. Behind the chair is a wood grain wall. Wood is something that grows. Wood is symbolic of the “growth” that happens when a child learns and reads.

Keep your eye open for backgrounds that are symbolic of the story you want to tell.

Using the Background to Tell a Story in Multiple Photos

When you find a good background, go ahead and use it in different ways to expand on your story.

The following photos are all from Hopewell Rocks in New Brunswick. Every tourist who has ever been there, walks away with the same photos from the same perspectives, so I challenged myself to come away with something different. I wanted photos of the rocks, so I used them as the background for the scene and then waited for interesting characters to come along.

The first thing I noticed was lots of tourists rushing around snapping pictures of the rocks. They were always getting in the way of the photo I was taking, so I gave up and took pictures of them instead.

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I like how this tourist blends into the rocks. As they reached out their arms to take a photo, their arms mimicked the circle shapes in the rocks.

Two-year-olds are notoriously difficult to photograph. I wanted to take a photo of my daughter with the rocks in the background. But all she wanted to do was chew on saltwater stones. She had been doing this on our entire trip. We were constantly telling her to get the rocks out of her mouth.

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If you’re going to photograph a two-year-old, you might just as well photograph her doing what she loves. And what better background for her photo than the massive rocks?

The tide was rising quickly and would soon cover the massive rock formations. In our last moments there something spectacular happened. A park ranger made his own rock formation by balancing several odd shaped rocks on each other.

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What a contrast between the massive Hopewell Rocks and the man-made formation. The force of the tide eroded one set of rocks over a long period of time and will quickly topple the rocks that have been so carefully balanced by the ranger.

When you stick with a scene long enough wonderful things happen and your mind will find symbolic meaning that you otherwise might have missed.

You’ll Enjoy Your Photos More When Your Background Adds to the Story

Don’t let your backgrounds be a disappointing afterthought. Instead, consider how the background in your photo can add storytelling elements to your character.

Remember the steps:

  • When you’re going to take a picture of somebody, first ask yourself, “Who is this character and what are they doing?” When you answer these questions you’ll be able to choose a good background for storytelling.
  • You can choose a background for your character, or find a good background and wait for the perfect character to come along.
  • Try using backgrounds to give symbolic meaning to your photos.
  • Use the background in different ways over several photos.

When you pay attention to the background your photos will become less sloppy and more meaningful. Please share some of your images with storytelling backgrounds in the comments below.

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