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on Jun 5, 2013 in Aviation

Manipulating Backgrounds


The subject is the one element in the frame we usually have a handle on. It’s the main character, the star of our photo, the reason why we stopped our lives to make the photograph. But what about the rest of the photo? That is where we typically stop in our track and the sweat begins to ooze from our forehead as we try to put the rest of the elements to come together. While we have a star for our photo, we need a stage for it to act on and tell its story. That is in large part our mandate as photographers, connect all these dots to tell a visual story. This was made painfully and thankfully obvious to me when I first started out in my career.


The stage we set in our photo is often the background for our subject. In these photos, I’m at the Chino Airshow a while back and the theme of the show was Lightning Strikes Chino, a play on the name of the P-38 Lightning. In this case, the photos needed to have editorial viability as much as be a pleasant photo. The photo needed to include more than one P-38 to say visually there was a gathering of them without any words needed to state that fact. This means that the star of the photo, a P-38 Lightning, was on a stage with other P-38 Lightnings and all of this needed to be on a backdrop of blah where type for the article could be placed without infringing on the subject of the photo. Phew…that’s a lot for one photo!

Shooting in the overcast skies of SoCal, needed to watch those skies for the first hint of burn off. I wanted the soft light to minimize shadows on the tarmac yet have enough to sparkle off the P-38s. Shooting with the D4 and 80-400 (top photo) which has become a standard with me anymore. I than started to walk the line and first went to the classic “down the nose” shot of all the aircraft. For sure, a cool shot and I’m glad I took it. And while it’s dynamic, it’s not dynamic enough. I looked at the background and while it said many aircraft, it didn’t make the P-38 “standout” as a standout, unique aircraft. The top photo makes it look like just one of the gang. So rather than shooting long, I switched out to the 18-35AFS. Then I moved in closer to the silver P-38 knowing the mind’s eye would grab on to its brightness and slowly moved looking at the neighboring P-38 to include it at what appears to be an angle. By changing lenses and position, I’m totally manipulating the background and so the photo and so the story. And by waiting for the overcast to start to break, I have a sky that is the perfect place for the article title. And that’s the point. The background is what makes the whole photograph work. The subjects were parked, they weren’t going anywhere but the background could be totally manipulated. Think about and look beyond your subject when you compose in the viewfinder and think storytelling and you can vastly improve the impact of your photos!