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

Updated on February 19, 2015
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Rose is a full-time freelance writer who frequently writes about education, special education, DIY projects, food, Milwaukee, and more.

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Think Before you Click: Distracting Elements - Episode 1 : PhotoRec Toby

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.

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.

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How I took out the distracting elements in the above photos

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 that 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.

One of the most frequent ways that I use backdrops is for my 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 product photography backdrops in action.

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For years, I've had my lightbox fitted with white poster board. Recently I also fitted it with black poster board to expand my solid backdrop options.

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The full black lightbox fitting allows for so many more possibilities than a single piece of black felt or a poster board rectangle.
The full black lightbox fitting allows for so many more possibilities than a single piece of black felt or a poster board rectangle.
The full black lightbox fitting allows for so many more possibilities than a single piece of black felt or a poster board rectangle. | Source
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How To Make a Low Budget Light Box - Auctiva Tips & Tricks

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I used a wood patterned paper from Michaels, but you can also buy it online.

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 with 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 set up 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.

More photo examples with my faux chalkboard and faux wood backdrops during a recent shoot for another HubPages article.

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I also used my new faux chalkboard backdrop for my HubPages Filofax article photos.

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DIY Photography Backdrop : DIY Photography & Reviews

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 $1.00 a piece. 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.

Are there other materials that you use for your photo backdrops? Feel free to leave them in the comments!

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Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Rose Clearfield

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      • MG Seltzer profile image

        MG Seltzer 

        3 years ago from South Portland, Maine

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

      • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

        Rose Clearfield 

        3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

        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.

      • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

        Claudia Mitchell 

        3 years ago

        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!

      • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

        Rose Clearfield 

        3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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

      • C L Mitchell profile image

        C L Mitchell 

        3 years ago

        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.

      • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

        Rose Clearfield 

        3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

        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!

      • Jeannieinabottle profile image

        Jeannie InABottle 

        3 years ago from Baltimore, MD

        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!

      • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

        Rose Clearfield 

        3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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

      • MonkeyShine75 profile image

        Mara Alexander 

        3 years ago from Los Angeles, California

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

        Thanks again

      • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

        Rose Clearfield 

        3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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

      • MonkeyShine75 profile image

        Mara Alexander 

        3 years ago from Los Angeles, California

        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

      • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

        Rose Clearfield 

        3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        3 years ago from USA

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

      • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

        Rose Clearfield 

        3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

        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.

      • mary615 profile image

        Mary Hyatt 

        3 years ago from Florida

        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.

      • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

        Rose Clearfield 

        3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

        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.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        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 profile image

        RTalloni 

        3 years ago from the short journey

        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.

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