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5 Tips for Controlling your Video Backgrounds

silhouette photo of fans cheering at a baseball game, the field is in sharp focus.

What's in YOUR background? Recently I wrote about 5 Poor Excuses for Bad Video and today I'm going to break one of them out into deeper study. Backgrounds. I'm not talking about green screen or computer generated backgrounds, I'm talking about the natural elements you'd focus on and find behind any subject you're shooting, because unless you're shooting with a completely black or white backdrop, you're going to have some background in your video, and many people seem to forget about that important feature. Backgrounds can hurt an othewise great image or help spice up your story, so let's give it more thought.

1. Garbage Galore: Good composition is important to all videos, regardless of what you're shooting, but some people concentrate on getting that main subject just so, that they forget to check out the rest of the elements in the frame. A lot of people point the camera at the subject and don't notice what's in the background at all. From garbage cans to trees appearing to grow out of someone's head, take a moment to analyze the background.
  • Usually taking a step or two to the side, or having your subject move to the side, will fix the problem.
  • I often will lower or raise a shot to place a subject's head over a light-switch plate or other element hanging on a wall to give the shot a cleaner look.
  • Check the sides of your frames, too, one of the challenges of shooting 16:9 hi def cameras, there's more frame-edge to deal with. This story on wide screen composition, by Videomaker's contributing editor Kyle Cassidy, has some good tips to using all the frame in a 16:9 image creatively.

2. Signs: A lot of people like to use signs to show where they are as sort of a travel guide video - and they want to be in the shot with the sign.

  • To avoid a large overhead gap between the sign and the subject or lots of wasted space in the shot, don't set the subject too close to the background. It's a matter of perspective, and your idea is to use all the space as creatively and fully as possible.
  • Notice our example with Jackson. If he were an eager student at a Videomaker workshop, he'd see a few posters hanging around and most tourists to VMHQ (Videomaker Headquarters, to the uninitiated) take a picture with one of our posters. Note that the size of the poster is relatively the same in both shots, yet the shot on the left has a lot of wasted space, while the shot on the right uses the space well and shows Jackson's reaction better. By moving Jackson 10 yards away from the background, we get a nice well-balanced over-the-shoulder shot with the sign and subject.
  • Even if you don't care about the background, taking your subject further away also gives your scene better depth composition. When the subject stands too close to the wall they appear to blend in or get lost in the background, pulling them away makes them stand out better.

3. Bright Background, Shaded Subject: It's hard to control the sun, but it's often an easy fix. There's rarely a moment when your want the background brighter than the main subject, unless you're working some silhouette or bokeh art (see item #5). You need balance.
  • Try this test: find an area with a light-colored wall of a building near some bushy green shrubbery. Set your subject in full sun with the wall as the background, then set the subject in front of the greenery. The difference will be remarkable. If the background is dark, a lighter subject is going to show up better in your shot.
  • If you must shoot the subject in the shade, use a reflector or bounce card to fill in the features so both background and your subject have similar exposure.
  • If you are shooting someone with a dark complexion, a light background will require you to control the exposure on the subject's features and you'll have to let the background bloom out, which isn't always a bad shot, just requires some skill with exposure and filters.

4. The Sky's the Limit: Many photographers and video producers shoot at eye or shoulder level, and while this is convenient and most comfortable, the rest of the world doesn't reside at a five-to-six-foot height.

  • You need to shoot at the level that is most appropriate to the subject, not the tripod height or your eye level.
  • And if you're interviewing a basketball player who is most likely taller than you are, you're either going to get the court lights inside or the sun outside playing havoc with your exposure. You need to get the camera to their height, not yours by either having them sit down, or you need to stand on a chair or bench. The camera should be positioned for the eye level of your subject, not your comfort level. Not only does shooting up into their face reveal nose hairs, it's not a flattering look and, (since we're talking about backgrounds here,) the background isn't too appealing. (Of course, that high level is good to illustrate his height, so keep the importance of how camera levels can change the feel of the shot in mind.)
  • Getting the field or court in the background adds to the excitement of the event. Consider getting as far from the field or court as possible, so the element of the event is revealed in the background, but doesn't over-power your foreground.

5. Soft Focus and Bokeh: So here's a new word for you: Bokeh - pronounced bow-KA, is a Japanese term that identifies the out of focus area of the shot, usually for artistic purposes, and is a creative way to use focus - or in this case, out of focus, shots to your advantage.

  • Bokeh (also seen spelled bokeah) creatively takes advantage of the softer focus in your scene, often making it more interesting than the focused areas.
  • We can learn a lot from the baseball field example shown. The silhouette of the fan's raised arms mirror the triangle of the baseball diamond (which defies the usual square rule of composition, which, as we all know, when you know and understand the rules, you can then confidently know when it's ok to break the rules.) The photographer also allowed the foreground to be dark, thus giving emphasis on the background.
  • Using a soft focus is a good trick when you can't hide the background so you have to work with it by softening it.
  • This is tricky with most average video camcorders, which seem to have almost all elements in the scene in focus, but using shutter speed tricks and long lenses, you can achieve a shallow depth of field that will take your background out of focus and make your foreground stand out even more.
  • With a long lens, getting farther away from the subject and zooming in usually achieves this effect.

BONUS TIP: If you can't hide the background and it's messy or doesn't add any value to the scene, try to get rid of it by using creative lighting to create a cameo shot.

  • Cameo shots will have only your subject lit and the rest of the scene is lost in the shadows, similar to this intimate scene with a couple toasting to their fun evening, you can't see that this shot was taken in a messy dirty-walled studio. Cameo lighting makes the background clean, and can give your shot a more intimate and inviting feel, but beware how you set it up, because it can also imply dark and sinister things in the elements you don't see.

Remember, electronic imaging - whether photos or videos - illustrates real events as they are happening, but a true creative video producer often imitates painters who artistically illustrate beauty as they see it.

Painters have the option of leaving out elements in a scene that they find distracting or don't add value to the canvas. Video producers have to be more technically savvy to work background into or out of the shot creatively by using lighting and composition, but by seeing all elements in a scene - foreground, main subject and background, any beginner can become a better artist and create masterpieces worthy of hanging on the virtual Louvre wall!

- Jennifer O'Rourke, Videomaker's managing editor

October 19th, 2012

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