An ugly, messy background hidden by a paper backdrop on C-stands

Paisley wallpaper. Billboards. Flashing lights. These are the backgrounds that video shooters dread. Not every shooter has the luxury of scouting locations in advance. When we arrive at a location for the first time, we’re faced with a wide variety of issues including sound and lighting. Many of those issues can be solved with the right gear, but what do you do when the issue is the location itself?

Imagine this scenario: You’ve been hired to record an elementary school principal’s speech at a student assembly. The speaker’s podium is set up in front of a bright school mural, a gaudy mishmash of color that totally distracts the eye. Time to panic? Not necessarily. Fortunately, there are several techniques to hide or change a background that is distracting, inappropriate or just plain ugly.

Use Another Angle

The simplest solution to fix an ugly background is to move the camera. By changing the direction of the shot by only a few degrees, you can solve many background issues, like the tree that appears to be sprouting from the top of your subject’s head.

Interview subjects will often position themselves in front of a blank wall with the mistaken belief that it makes a good background. Professional shooters know that it doesn’t, but there’s no need to move to another location. Start by moving the subject and camera to create space between them and the background. Then move your camera to the left or right. Pan the opposite way to reframe your subject so the background wall is no longer perpendicular to the camera.

2 photos of a person, one has a distracting background with a park bench and chain the other has a more pleasing background with a bridge in it.
2 photos of a person, one has a distracting background with a park bench and chain the other has a more pleasing background with a bridge in it.

Don’t be limited to moving your camera from side to side. Lowering your camera not only changes the perspective, it also has the subtle effect of making your subject look more powerful. If you raise your camera, you may also want to raise your subject so you’re not looking down at them. Moving the camera and subject gives you more background to choose from, while a tighter framing on your subject means less space is taken up by the unappealing background. Balance your shot using the Rule of Thirds and other rules of photo composition. Look for leading lines and shapes that draw the viewer’s eye from the background toward the subject.

Also look for natural frames to isolate and bring attention to your subject. Doorways, windows and arches are effective frames. Outside, look for trees and other vegetation in the background or foreground to frame your subject.

The sky is an effective and beautiful background whether it’s clear or cloudy. Bright skies can be blown out to a warm haze. Dark skies create a serious mood. Blue sky can be used as is or keyed out for the sky of your choice.

A person with the sky as the background.

Time is a precious commodity on most productions, but sometimes patience is required to achieve a better background. This is especially true when shooting outdoors. Passing clouds can obscure the light and tourists can wander into your shot. All you can do is wait patiently and try to use the time for rehearsal, reviewing footage or setting up another shot.

Use What You Have

After you’ve moved the camera, you may still need to make adjustments to the background. Make the most of what you have at the location. Move clutter and undesirable objects out of the shot. Hide a power outlet with a small plant or other prop. Replace a brightly colored poster with something less distracting. You don’t have to go crazy redecorating. A few minor adjustments may be all that’s needed.

An independent producer/shooter must wear many hats, including that of set designer. Even if you don’t have the option to bring your own background, you can include a few basic props and set dressings in your production kit. Practical lights, picture frames, small statues and maybe a fake plant or two add character to any location that might need a little extra dressing.

Always be respectful of the location, whether it’s a client’s office or a public park. Don’t forget to move everything back to where you found it and take away everything you brought with you, especially trash.

Use the Light

Another effective way to change your background is through lighting. Colored gels change a dull blank wall into something a little more interesting. Cookies (sheets or boards with patterns cut out of them) add shadow and subtle texture to any surface. Diffusion softens harsh shadows and edges. A backlight on your subject will help isolate them from the background. You can also create a very cinematic look when you combine a hot backlight with a soft diffuse light source on the front of your subject.

If you have the space to light your subject and background separately, you can further isolate the subject with high contrast lighting, either light against dark or dark against light. Keep your background dark by using barn doors and lighting flags to block the lights from reaching the background while exposing on a well-lit subject. When you’re shooting outside against a bright background, expose on a subject in the shade to blow out the background.

An independent producer and shooter must wear many hats, including that of set designer.

Use the Camera

Changing your exposure is only one way your camera’s settings can turn an ugly background into something more pleasing to the eye. A shallow depth of field allows you to keep the background out of focus while your subject remains crisp and clear.

2 photos of a person, one has everything in focus and the other has a short depth of focus with a soft background.

To make your subject stand out from a busy background, use a long focal length (telephoto) lens. The longer the lens, the shallower the depth of field. Longer focal lengths have the added appearance of enlarging the background relative to the foreground. Unfortunately, long lenses like an 85mm, may require a great deal of space between the camera and subject to get the desired effect.

Changing your aperture setting is a way to alter depth of field without changing lenses or camera position. The larger the aperture you set, the shallower your depth of field will be. Lowering the overall light level allows you to shoot at a lower f-stop. A neutral density filter may be required outside or in other bright areas.

Fix It in Post

Your last and least desirable option is to change the background in post-production. If you’re comfortable using After Effects and the more advanced tools in your video editing suite, altering the background is a relatively easy task.

2 screen grabs of the Roto Brush being used in After Effects isolating the background.

Remove unwanted background objects like graffiti or a distracting road sign with the Clone Stamp. This is easiest if your shot is locked down, but not impossible even if there’s some camera movement. Camera tracking tools can help stabilize footage before you attempt to clone out unwanted objects.

Use masks or the Roto Brush to isolate your subject from the background. Keying is another way to remove the background. If you didn’t bring a green or blue screen with you, it may be possible to key out the blue sky or other flat, well-lit colors. It isn’t necessary to remove your background entirely. Isolating it in post allows you to make tweaks to the color, exposure and other settings without affecting the look of your subject.

Conclusion

Now, there’s no need to fear when your shoot is faced with gaudy murals or paisley wallpaper. You may not always have control over your shooting location, but these techniques should inspire you to find new and creative ways to hide an ugly background.

SIDEBAR

Bring Your Own Background
The ultimate way to hide an ugly background is to cover it with one that you bring to the location. Your backgrounds kit should include infinite black, infinite white, a green screen, plus other chromakey colors and textured backgrounds if you have the room. Don’t forget the c-stands, boom arms and clamps to hang the cloth backdrops. A portable handheld fabric steamer is useful for removing wrinkles.

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1 COMMENT

  1. It also helps a lot to have a "foreground" subject who draws focus by their energy, presence and performance.  I remember (ages ago) seeing "The Untouchables" starring Kevin Costner with Sean Connery in a small supporting role.  Connery could be 10 feet upstage and doing nothing but standing around and our eyes went to his screen presence no matter where the focius was supposed to be.   So, no children, no puppies and no Sean Connery upstage of the action.  🙂  P.S.  The young lady in the article is a good example of "presence" as opposed to just posing where the director told her to stand.