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Photo tips: Understanding backgrounds – how location shapes the shot

– Blur, bokeh, and colours.

The third part of this series photo tips focuses on choosing a background. As an animal photographer who mainly works outdoors, Valentina Goeck is fully aware of the extent to which the choice of location influences the photo. Of course, you can make superb use of this fact to influence the overall impact that the photo has on the viewer.

Using blur and sharpness in portrait photography

Portraits have their most intense effect when the animal or person is the only crisp and clear aspect of the photograph, while the background melts away into a soft, blurry surface. This means that the focus is clearly and unambiguously on the subject of the photo and the viewer’s gaze lingers on the face. Creating this background blur is still a challenge that requires a particular technique. Blur in the background increases as the subject moves further away from the background, making open spaces particularly well suited for creating this effect. Moreover, it’s helpful to use as wide an aperture as possible and to shoot using a telephoto lens.

In my examples (“Quarter Horse Foal Leaping over the Thistles”) there is an additional layer of blur between me and the foal as a result of the flowers in the foreground, giving the photo even greater depth. Objects in the foreground could be flowers, as is the case here, but leaves of blades of grass are also suitable. You just have to pay attention to ensure that they don’t cover too much of the subject. In the example of “Magyar Vizsla George,” the long grass in the background shows the transition from sharp focus to blur.

Bokeh without a filter app

“Bokeh” is Japanese and means “fuzzy” or “blurry.” However, when photographers use the term, they aren’t referring to the level of blurriness, but rather the way in which the image is portrayed. Out-of-focus light spots are used to create round spots of various sizes. These spots are created when the light falls on a group of trees from behind, for example, often creating a dreamy atmosphere in the photo. If the trees or bushes are very light, there will be very large numbers of bokeh points, making the background seem much less calm than when only a little light gets through the trees.

The shafts of light coming through the confiders on the photo of the two foals, Juri and Floyd, create a bokeh that somewhat resembles a pearl necklace. In the portrait of Alexa and her grey, Kurmärker, the bokeh is created as a result of the sun falling onto the wooded area as well as reflections off a few mosquitoes. When backlit in this way, they too are turned into small light spots outside the focal area.

Interplay of seasonal colours

Green is a common colour in nature, but if you’re looking for something a bit different, you can choose a bright blue sky as a backdrop to a hill, or perhaps look for a colourful meadow full of flowers.

The trees glow with warm tones from yellow through to dark red in the autumn, and brown autumnal foliage, when combined with subjects in natural tones, often results in very harmonious, almost monochromatic photos. This kind of autumnal effect can often be achieved even in winter, provided that there’s no snow on the ground; beeches keep their leaves into the early part of the New Year until the new foliage appears. The autumnal-looking photo of Diego in my last blog post was actually taken in February!

In snowy weather, everything looks cool because of the reflection of blue light in the snow crystals. This is another opportunity to create lots of interesting contrasts with warm colours, as in my example of Sabrina with her Trakehner mare, Edna. The horse’s auburn coat looks even warmer when contrasted against the bluish shimmer of the trees and, as cameras usually take slightly warmer shots in winter than our eyes perceive the scene, you can also boost the effect in post-processing.


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