Yes, clutter. It's the bane of most modern people - unless you're Martha Stewart. Most people's homes contain some version of clutter, whether you call it that or not. It could be that you have an extensive collection of knickknacks. Or it could be that you just aren't very good at picking up the dishes after every meal. Whatever the case may be, the clutter that is so pervasive inside your home it is not very good background for your photographs. So apart from hiring Martha Stewart to organize your home for you, what can you do to avoid clutter in your photos?
Oh, look, my brother's room is messy by Flickr user lindaaslund
If I had to guess, I’d say that most hobby photographers take photographs without really giving any thought whatsoever to what is in the background. There's a pretty simple explanation for this. Most people don't really notice the clutter that they live with on a daily basis. That's because it's in their lives pretty much all the time. It's just a part of their household, so after a while it becomes almost invisible.
So when you're taking photographs of the inside of your home, you’re not likely to think about that bronze cowboy statue that's always been in the corner of the room. But when you open up your photographs later on, you may be disappointed to realize that that cowboy is stealing the show from your otherwise adorable grandchild.
This tendency to be oblivious to clutter extends outside the home as well. Human beings have a pretty impressive ability to filter out unimportant information wherever we are, which is why you can have a conversation in a noisy restaurant without going mad. But the problem with this ability is that it often follows us into our picture-taking—we are so intent on our subject that we sometimes don’t see the objects around him until it’s too late. That’s why so many photo albums are full of shots of families posing in front of over-full trash bins, seriously ugly billboards and other background distractions that the photographer didn’t even notice when taking the shot.
Joy by Flickr user Public Places
Why it matters
Even clutter that we don’t notice in real life can end up being a huge distraction when it’s in a photograph. That’s because a photo is a condensed version of the visible world. When we’re in the great big world we tune out all that extra visual noise as a matter of necessity, but we don’t really do the same thing when we look at an image. Instead, we view that image as a whole. We see the subject and we also see the tree behind him that appears to be growing out of his head. We see all the parked cars lining the street and, yes, the overflowing trashcan that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the background.
Unless your ultimate goal is to make a comment about overflowing trashcans in national parks or the parking problem in the inner city, you probably don’t need trashcans or parked cars in your photographs. Unless they contribute something to the meaning of your image, they become distractions. What that means is that your viewers will spend as much time studying the trash and the parked cars as they do studying your subject, and that’s going to end up making your image a lot less successful.
Untitled by Flickr user EYECCD
How to deal with clutter
The first step to dealing with clutter in your photographs is to train yourself to notice it. Whenever I get my camera out, I always take a look around at the things in the environment. I will take note of that cowboy statue, or what other potential show-stealer might happen to be in the room. Once I know where all of those things are, I can do one of two things: I can move the offending subject, or if that’s not possible, I can simply angle it out. But if I'm not aware that it’s there, I'm certainly not likely to do anything about it.
Clutter that can be moved is pretty easy to deal with—you just move it. But what if it's something that can't be moved? Then you got a couple of alternatives.
First, move around your environment and try to assess the scene from other angles. It could be that simply walking to the left or to the right is going to be enough to remove the offending object from the image. You can also try crouching down and shooting your subject from below, or standing on a chair and shooting your subject from above. These are all effective ways to get an unwanted object out of the frame, without having to physically move it. If you do use this technique, be aware that you can create distortion when you get close to your subject or when you shoot from above or below. A person shot from above, for example, may look diminutive, which may create a mood contrary to what you were hoping to capture. A person shot from below, on the other hand, may look more powerful and authoritative—that’s a great look for a businessman or a politician, but maybe not for a child (though I have known some pretty authoritative children in my day). And when you use a wide angle lens, those from-below shots can even look a bit comical, so keep this in mind when thinking about camera angle as a way to eliminate distractions.
When all else fails, you can simply use a larger aperture to blur the background distractions out of existence. The good news is that if you're shooting indoors you may already be using a larger aperture—larger apertures are often necessary in low light situations. If you’re not shooting indoors you may have to turn your shutter speed up considerably in order to get that aperture as wide as it needs to be, and a low ISO will also be in order. On very bright days you may also need to consider moving your subject into the shade.
Use aperture preview if your camera has it, if not simply check the results on your camera's screen after you take the image to see if you're getting as much blur as you'd like to have on that distracting background element. If you’re not getting enough blur on your background even at larger apertures, it could be because your subject is standing too close to the background, or you are too far away from your subject. Try having him move forward a few steps, and use your zoom lens (or your feet) to get optically closer to him.
Another way to cope with clutter is to simply zoom in. If your subject is a person, you may not need to have any background elements at all. If you zoom in tightly on that persons face, you're going to get a nice portrait, and the side effect will be that you have eliminated all of those ugly distracting things that are in the background.
Elçin by Flickr user Andrew Czap
Sometimes there really isn’t anything you can do—maybe you have a reason for not wanting to zoom in close to your subject (her shoes are really cute, after all) and you just can’t seem to angle out all of those distractions. Your remaining option is to simply change settings. Sometimes this means just walking a few steps away, sometimes it means changing venues altogether. It may not be the most practical solution, but often it’s the best one. If the quality of the image is a major concern to you, it may be worth that inconvenience.
When clutter isn’t bad
Like all rules of photography, there are exceptions. Sometimes clutter can add context to your image. You wouldn’t photograph a librarian without a large collection of books in the background, so that’s a good argument for always doing an assessment of the scene before you decide that you should exclude the clutter. If the clutter has an important role to play in the story you’re trying to tell, you should try to include it in the shot.
This is really a very simple matter of training yourself to see every situation with a photographer’s eye, rather than the eye that you normally use to filter out all that stuff that isn’t really important to you. Remember that your camera can’t filter out all those distractions the way your brain can, so it’s up to you to make sure that they aren’t in the scene before you press the shutter button. That means giving the situation a quick assessment and checking out all that background noise through your viewfinder or on your LCD. Ask yourself if the stuff in the distance contributes to the shot—if it’s Mount Everest, then the answer is most certainly “yes.” If it’s Mount Trash Pile, then you definitely want to do everything in your power to make sure it doesn’t steal the show.
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