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How to Isolate Your Subject and Eliminate Distraction With a Photo Backdrop

Rose is a full-time freelance writer who frequently writes about education, special education, DIY projects, food, Milwaukee, and more.

Removing background distractions can turn a good photo into a great photo.

Removing background distractions can turn a good photo into a great photo.

A Common Photography Mistake

One of the most common mistakes that people make when taking pictures is leaving clutter in the background. You may not think that it's a big deal to have some trees behind a person while you're taking a portrait or to leave items on the counter while you're photographing a project that you made. These issues don't necessarily ruin a photo, but they can keep a good photo from being a great photo. Taking the time to eliminate distractions allows you to separate the subject from the background, helping viewers to focus on the subject.

Remove Distracting Elements

It may seem like an obvious concept to eliminate distractions in a photo, and it is, but it still takes time and practice for it to become routine practice. Make a conscious effort to remove distracting elements from your photo compositions. Before you know it, you'll be doing it without even thinking about it.


Distracting vs. Clean Background

In the above examples, I have essentially the same shot with a distracting background versus a clean background. The distracting background photos aren't terrible. I shot them on a sunny day with plenty of natural lighting. I used the proper manual camera settings and composed the shots decently. In both photos, I fill the frame with the subject, which makes you notice the distracting background less than you would otherwise. However, being able to see other items in the background is still distracting.

In comparison, the photos on the right have no distracting elements. The fix here couldn't be more simple. The only difference in the left and right photos is that I placed foam core backdrops underneath and behind the subjects. While getting rid of distracting elements isn't always this straightforward, seeing how much of a difference it makes should get you thinking about ways to take out distracting elements in your own photos.

Using Backdrops for Product Photography

The first time that I started using backdrops to eliminate distraction was when I got serious about improving my product photography.

My go-to product photo backgrounds are white poster board, gray felt rectangles (I use two different shades), and sheet music. All of these products are inexpensive and readily available, which means that any of them are great options if you're just starting to use backdrops and you don't need anything too big.

My Foam Core Backdrops

For the past five years, I've been using a lightbox for all of my product photography and many smaller shoots for my blog, HubPages articles, and other varying projects. It has been an amazing tool that has allowed me to take my product photos and small-scale styled shoots to a whole new level.

The biggest limitation of the lightbox is its size. For some time, I've known that I needed to expand my artificial lighting options. After much research and deliberation, I decided to make a pair of imitation Lowel Ego Lights using this tutorial. These lights provide much higher wattage than my lightbox lights. I could have created a setup for them with white poster board or foam core, but I don't love shooting on pure white. So I made the following two backdrops.

  • Faux chalkboard. I was a little weary about faux chalkboard because it's so trendy right now. I don't want my photos to look like every other blog and catalog. However, the effect of this tutorial is so subtle. As a background, you don't even really think about the fact that it looks like a chalkboard. I used a tutorial from Whipperberry.
  • Faux wood. Many people are somewhat dismayed to learn that many photographers use fake wood backdrops. Why faux wood instead of real wood? In many instances, it's much lighter, which is very convenient if you want to use your backdrop in multiple locations. Faux wood may seem gimmicky. However, with a high-quality wood print, it's virtually impossible to tell the difference in a photo. I used a tutorial from Mama to 5 Blessings.

Mason or Ball jars are a simple, affordable medium to use in the kitchen for both decorative and functional purposes. Choose from vases, food storage, soap dispensers, herb containers, and more.

Options for Making and Buying Backdrops

The possibilities for making and buying photography backdrops are virtually endless. How do you know where to start? Think about the types of shooting that you do and look for options within your budget. You don't need to buy or make all of the photo backdrops that you'll ever need all at once. Start with one or two backdrops and then build from there. The following options will get you started.

  • Poster board. Poster board is inexpensive and readily available in every big box store, craft store, and teacher supply store. The most common colors are black and white, but it does come in other colors. It is easy to cut poster board into the size and shape that you need to serve as a viable backdrop.
  • Felt rectangles. Most craft stores sell 8.5″ x 11″ felt rectangles as well as select larger sizes in varying colors for less than $1 apiece. Michaels often has the 8.5″ x 11″ rectangles for around 30 cents each. 8.5″ x 11″ may seem way too small for photo backdrops, but it's perfect for small-scale product shoots. Additionally, if you want to use felt as a large backdrop, you can buy it by the yard at fabric stores.
  • Fabric. Fabric comes in every color, print, texture, and weight imaginable. If you're shooting close up, it can be tedious to take care of fabric so that wrinkles and stray threads don't show up in the photos. If you're shooting portraits or larger-styled shoots, you don't have to worry as much about these imperfections.
  • Foam core. I used foam core for the faux chalkboard and faux wood backdrops that I featured in this article. Recently I've found the best prices on 20" x 30" foam core at Target, which carries white and black. Foam core isn't as durable as vinyl, but it's still great for styled shoots that don't involve food.
  • Vinyl. Vinyl is the photo backdrop material of choice for professional photographers, and it's not hard to see why. Vinyl doesn't wrinkle or rip easily, and you can wipe it clean as needed (i.e. after accidentally dripping food while documenting a new recipe, after photographing a birthday cake smash). If you're looking for vinyl resources, I've linked a couple of the most popular Etsy backdrop shops on the right.
  • Miscellaneous DIY tutorials. There are a wealth of DIY ideas for creating your own photography backdrops on the cheap. People use everything from book pages to crepe paper to records to wrapping paper. Search "DIY photo backdrop" on Pinterest to get you started.

Vinyl Backdrop Sources

The possibilities for making and buying photography backdrops are virtually endless.

The possibilities for making and buying photography backdrops are virtually endless.

More Photography Resources From the Author

© 2015 Rose Clearfield


MG Seltzer from South Portland, Maine on June 13, 2015:

Thank you for this. It's clear, specific, and I can use several of the tips.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 28, 2015:

Thanks, Glimmer Twin Fan! I'm sure that it does seem funny to a lot of people that you take pictures in the bathroom, but I completely understand.

Claudia Porter on March 28, 2015:

This is very helpful. I use all sorts of things from around the house as backdrops. I also take many photos outside or in my master bathroom. That always makes me laugh, but the room has the best natural light!

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 25, 2015:

I'm so glad to hear it, C L Mitchell! Best of luck. :)

C L Mitchell on March 25, 2015:

What a great article. So much helpful information, I've favourited this so I can come back to it. My photos for my hubs are rather average so I've been looking for ways to improve them.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 17, 2015:

It's tough to get in the habit of removing distracting elements all the time. I still struggle with it plenty myself. You're right about photo editing, too. Thanks!

Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on March 17, 2015:

I am often guilty of having too much going on in the background of my photos. Trying to tone the background done with photo editing only goes so far. Thanks for the helpful advice!

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 27, 2015:

Gotcha. I'm glad that you have this resource for future photo shoots!

Mara Alexander from Los Angeles, California on February 27, 2015:

Me too Randomcreative. I have lots of photos I took that needed a clean backdrop

Thanks again

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 27, 2015:

I'm so glad that you were able to learn something here, MonkeyShine!

Mara Alexander from Los Angeles, California on February 27, 2015:

I've always wanted to be able to do this and didn't know how

So kewl! Thank you for sharing

I voted it up

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 23, 2015:

I'm so glad to hear that, FlourishAnyway! Thanks for the feedback.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 23, 2015:

This was an excellent tutorial, and the example photos (particularly the before/after) serve your points well.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 21, 2015:

Mary, there are so many ways that you can use backdrops for HubPages article photos. I hope that you are able to give it a try. Even throwing a towel or a bed sheet behind items can make a big difference.

Spot removal tools are great for taking out small distractions, such as a single bird in a blue sky or a speck of dust next to a plate of food. They aren't so great for wiping out large distractions. If you have a lot of control over your shooting environment, you're better off trying to remove distracting items before picking up the camera.

Best of luck! I appreciate the votes and shares.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on February 21, 2015:

What a great idea! I just never thought about using a backdrop before. I really need to improve on my photos, so I thank you for this. I've tried Photoshop to erase unwanted items in a background without much success.

Voted UP, etc. and shared.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 20, 2015:

RTalloni, I'm glad that I was able to provide so much inspiration! Fabric is a great place to start for photo backdrops. It would definitely be fun to experiment with different patterns and colors to achieve just the right balance. Best of luck and thank you for the promo!

Thanks, Bill, I'm glad to hear it! Learning how to use a camera is a lifelong process. Every little bit of new info helps.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 20, 2015:

Great information, Rose. I really appreciate the lesson. I have a new Nikon but I'm still learning about all it can do. These tips will help.

RTalloni on February 19, 2015:

Love what you've done with this hub. Such an interesting read filled with loads of clever and useful info with resources--thanks!

I've used fabric before but not explored beyond that. Now you've got me thinking about creating my own photography backdrops. It would be fun to creatively balance and scale patterns and textures using unexpected colors.

Pinning to my Photography Ideas/Tips board.