photographic composition – look at your background!

improve your composition in photography – be specific about your background

The impact in this photo of Jessica relies equally on her looks and pose, the lighting, and the background. The background was very specifically chosen by how *I* position myself in relation to my subject. The background was out of focus neon lights in Times Square. I composed the photo very tightly with a 70-200mm lens, set to 200mm. With this, I can select exactly what I want to include in the image.

For comparison, here is the wider shot, so you can get an idea of the melange we had as a background …

By eliminating clutter, and eliminating everything that does not add to the photo, I simplified the composition. This is something I stress whenever I am invited to speak to or work with groups of newer photographers. I find that inexperienced photographers tend to point their camera at something, instead of framing their subject. You absolutely need to look at the edges of your frame to see what you include. This will also help you not chop off the top of people’s heads (or feet). Unless of course, that is your deliberate intention.

For me, the two most important guidelines in photographic composition are:

  • be specific about your background
    Don’t just place your subject just anywhere. Either move your subject, or, better yet, change your own position. Crouch. Stretch. Lay down on the ground. Step to the side. Move around. Find your background in relation to your subject.
  • look at the edges of your frame
    Don’t just aim your camera. Frame.
    Be specific about what you include. Be specific about what you exclude.


camera settings & photo gear (or equivalents) used during this photo session

  • 1/160 @ f3.2 @ 800 ISO;  TTL flash at -0.3 EV


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19 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 2ernst says

    Wonderful photo and tip! Thanks again. And gotta love New York — seems everyone is just doing their thing and ignoring the photographer/model/softbox crew. Are they roping off the area certain times of the week for pedestrians?

  2. 3Neil vN says

    Yup, one of the roads running through Times Square has been changed into a pedestrian area. It messes the traffic pattern up a bit, but makes Times Square a vastly nicer place to hang out.

    As for the attention we got .. as glamorous as Jessica might be, she just didn’t get as much attention on her own after we wafted through with the Modern Gypsies.

  3. 4 says

    Me lembro do primeiro dia que visitei seu site há mais ou menos 2 anos atrás e fiquei imprecionado com tantas dicas fantastica.
    Estou aqui diariamente e agradeço a você por compartilhar conhecimentos tão valiosos.
    Este é mais um post “Fantastico”
    Um forte abraço e obrigado

  4. 5Theo says

    Hi Neil,

    Love your blog. I read it everyday. My question is did you use some of your magic on Jessica in the photo with the Modern Gypsies?

  5. 7Briand says

    did you use tripod?

    1/160th @200mm no blur?

    great shot

    you are telling us that we can shoot almost anywhere


  6. 8 says

    Briand … 1/160 isn’t so slow with a lens like the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR II lens that has aggressive image stabilization / vibration reduction.

    Also, in how I positioned our model, Jessica, she was mostly shaded – her face and front of her body under-exposed. This does help to keep the image sharp, since flash will freeze movement when the available light is much lower in comparison.

  7. 9 says

    Hi, was the flash cto’d. I notice her right strap is gold compared to her left. Is that the flash or just ambient neons?

  8. 10 says

    @ Bud, good catch, but if you look at the softbox you can see the pure white flash, I think it must be the ambient neons or other captured light source.

  9. 11Neil vN says

    Bud, it’s just how the flash caught the glitzy material at that point.

    Here is a photo without flash. It should make it quite apparent. This will also help explain Briand’s question.

  10. 12craig says

    I notice you used the SD9 battery pack on this shoot…
    Its my understanding you can’t attach a pocket wizard PlusII to the flash when using the external battery pack…
    So I assume, you are using another SB900 as a commander to fire the TTL flash…
    Am I correct in this ?

  11. 13 says

    You most certainly can use an SD-9 (or any other external battery pack), and a Pocket Wizard (Plus II) on the flash at the same time.

    For these photos I did rely on the camera’s TTL wireless system. In this case it would be the Nikon CLS, and I did use another SB-900 as a Master .. exactly as with this preceding photo shoot with the Modern Gypsies.

  12. 14craig says

    Thanks for clarifying bad info I recieved per above…I am still curious about your use of the lasolite softbox with TTL.
    in one of your previous post reviewing the new TTL pocket wizards you stated “”This is most likely not specifically a PocketWizard problem, but a limitation of the TTL metering technology. The camera needs to see the pre-flash to calculate the exposure, and with the softbox (with the additional baffle), the preflash might very well be too faint to register by the camera’s metering.”” So do you not experience the same problem using the SB 900 as the master, in the double baffled
    softbox ?… I would think using the new pocket wizards would cut down on a lot of the weight of having the 900 mounted
    to the hot shoe…the 2 new wizards would be about the price of a 900…Thanks for your time and opinion.

  13. 15 says

    Craig, I didn’t have success with the TT1 and TT5 units, but doing it this way, with the Master flash on the camera pointed at the Slave – that works. I’m assuming it could be the PocketWizards, or the wireless TTL flash technology. In the end, it can only be an educated guess without doing very controlled tests and pulling out oscilloscopes and such.

    However it may be, this way works. The PocketWizards (TT1 and TT5) didn’t. Not consistently anyway.

    The weight of the SB-900 on my camera isn’t really a concern.

  14. 17anton gallardo says

    Hi Neil,
    On Jessica’s picture above (first shot). is the distance of the off camera flash in SB equal to that off the camera location?

    Thanks much! And more power to you.


  15. 19OC Mike says

    Neil, you are the Internet’s supreme master teacher of flash techniques! You continue to educate us with your creative and innovative lessons. You are the best man! Thanks so much!! Mike

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