Busy Foreground, Plain Background

I’m always keeping half an eye open for subjects framed against a plain background, although I don’t make it a firm stipulation. Usually, I let my creative impulse play with jumbled backgrounds, but sometimes a critical voice in my head says: “Go on, take those guys against the darkened doorway. They’ll look great.”

All photography experts say: “Simplify! simplify!” and the sensible person follows their advice. Ninety percent of “good photography” is uncluttered — the image paired down to essentials so that the main subject makes an uninterrupted statement. However, not wanting to follow all the rules I try to enlarge the scope of what seems possible in photographic composition. I like to include bits of chaos here and there.

The background in my featured image (above) is not, of course, entirely plain. It’s the back of a bus. It has rivets, tail lights and lettering; it even has two different colours. Yet compared to the normal cluttered background of the street it’s very plain indeed. I liked the fact that its prevailing colour is Girly Pink, whereas the two people on the scooter — trying to weave their way through the traffic — are tough-looking men who’ve clearly done a good day’s work.

I call the image “Hemmed In,” which sums up the situation of these two men, caught up in the Bangkok rush hour. It’s precisely the kind of image I like to get. Significant visual content fills the frame. There are details in all the corners — glimpses beyond the rectangle — a sense that life is going on all around, not just in front of the camera.

Finding plain backgrounds in a city like Bangkok is not easy. The Thai people love to decorate everything with elaborate carvings, quirky sculptures, intricate garlands, keepsakes and mementoes. Add to these the lush, dishevelled growth of tropical plants and the chaos of overhead cables and you get a background that’s not at all conducive to traditional, paired-down, western photography.

Blurring the Background
With close-up photography you can rely on “bokeh” to give the subject the prominence it needs, while still retaining a sense of context in the image. Personally, I don’t find this technique as rewarding as keeping the background in sharp focus — as in my featured image. We see portraits against out-of-focus backgrounds so often.

In the image below I’ve attempted a compromise between the two approaches. The tuk-tuk driver is in sharp focus, but so is the red light at the top right of the frame. The rest has varying degrees of blur and you can just make out a figure in blue, walking behind a tree.

I was lucky to get the shot, because drivers don’t often engage in such earnest conversation. This one was explaining to my partner how he would take us, free of charge, to our destination if only we would allow him to introduce us to a couple of jewelers and a tailor along the way. We agreed — and managed to survive the next half-hour without buying any jewels or suits. I even got a couple of other good shots during the trip.

Really Busy Foreground
I’m not entirely sure whether the subject of my next photo (below) is the decoration on the window bars or the drowsy man on the other side of them. Necessarily it’s a combination of the two, as both are in sharp focus. The background is a darkened interior with a hint of illumination on the left. It provides a good foil for the double subject in the foreground.

You’ll probably think the image is too relaxed for Bangkok — and you’d be right. I took it down south, half-way toward the equator in Phuket Town on a very hot day. No glass separates the man from the road, so there is clearly little pollution. I like the way the gilded leaf echoes the shape of the man’s ear. He grasps the window sill with a sense of rightful ownership. In this place he is very much at home.

When there is sufficient visual information you can tell a lot about the subject. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to notice that the two men on the scooter are returning from work (the passenger’s hand is covered with dust, the sun is low in the sky), or that the drowsy man by the window takes great care of himself and his home (his freshly styled hair, the recently painted grille).

So it’s important to avoid eliminating too much detail from your image. You can achieve a balance between simplicity and detailed description by looking for plain backgrounds and using them when appropriate. Just don’t expect the background to be as plain as the paper roll in the studio. In street photography every subject needs context. I never like to lose it completely.

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