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Adjusting for Clean Backgrounds

Lesson 15 from: Travel Photography: The Complete Guide

Ben Willmore

Adjusting for Clean Backgrounds

Lesson 15 from: Travel Photography: The Complete Guide

Ben Willmore

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Lesson Info

15. Adjusting for Clean Backgrounds


Class Trailer



Course Introduction


Camera Gear for Travel


What Camera Gear Should You Buy?


Gear Bags for Travel Photography


Location Research and Pre-Trip Planning


Importing and Naming Conventions in Lightroom


Processing Images with Presets in Lightroom


Lesson Info

Adjusting for Clean Backgrounds

So let's take a look at what I think it takes to make a more successful image. Once you've found what it is you wanna shoot, now you have all these elements in front of you. How do you kind of organize them in the frame in the best way you might be able to? So the first thing is I'm trying to get as clean of a background as possible. If I have a subject and the background is not part of what I'm trying to share, then anything in the background can distract someone else. The main idea though, is that everyone else has different interests than you. So when you get to something, you're magnetically attracted to something enough that you decide to pick up your camera and capture it. That doesn't mean the person you're gonna show the photo to is just as interested in that same thing. So to help them along we need to get any potential distractions in the background that they might be interested in, out of there if at all possible. Because then they can't help but look at the thing that we we...

re attracted to, and therefore we're sharing more of what we were interested in with them. The more we include in the background, the more people are going to look at that stuff. So let's take a look at some examples. Just look at how simple the backgrounds are. And I try to search out backgrounds oftentimes. There it might not be simple, but there's nothing within the background that doesn't go with what it is that caused me to pick up the camera. Does that make sense? I don't see a lot of stuff that really doesn't go with what I'm trying to show here. So it might not be that it's always clean. It's that it's always related to the thing that attracted me. In this case though, here I found this guy, he's working on a boat. Like that, that's what caused me to pick up my camera. I clicked and this is what I got. But that's not where I wanna stop. I wanna then look after I've gotten that, make sure you got the shot. Go ahead and take it first, but then glance at what's surrounding the shot, and just say is there anything at all that might distract people. And here there's a diagonal line near the upper right. There's a tire sitting up near that line. In the lower left corner of the frame there's just some thing sitting there. And those are all things that could pull my eye away from the reason why I picked up the camera, that subject. So I can either crop the image, or I can reshoot it try to really clean it up so that you can't help but look at whatever it was I was interested in. If you look at this example, I found these guys. They were playing this game. It was great because they were engaged in the game and hadn't noticed me yet. Because the second they notice me, they're not gonna be in the moment anymore. But I got this shot just to make sure I got it. But then before I walked away, I didn't just think "Oh cool I got that shot!", I clicked and I say "Oh cool I got the shot," and then I started looking around the frame. And saying what else would other people gonna see that's gonna detract from that. And I saw all those people in the background and said what the heck could I do to get rid of those. Well do you see an open area kind of to the right, over the guy's shoulder that's on the right side. Well I just went to an angle there, and tried to go for as clean of a background as I could. And that's what I ended up with. Which I think is much better in that there's nothing there to distract you. Here it can be something very simple. And that is on the very top edge of the frame, you just see some random detail going across the top. Your eye might have flicked up there just to see what it was and probably came back down to them pretty quickly afterwards, and dismissed what was on the edge. But if your eye went up there even for a millisecond, it pulled you away from the subject. All I needed to do is frame slightly differently and that simply wouldn't be an issue. Your eye would not flick away from my subject to see whatever that stuff is. If I want your eye to flick away, I want there to be a reward for going and doing it. Are there some flowers there, is there some cool interesting shape there, is there something that rewarded you for looking there. If there's not, I'm gonna try to eliminate it by either blurring it by using depth 2.8 kind of thing. I'm gonna try to make it too dark so you can't see what's in it. I'm gonna try to crop it out. I'm gonna do something to try to make it so it's minimized or eliminated. Here you see on the right side, there are some signs in the distance. They're not all that distracting or anything, but they're there. Is there anything I could have done about them? Well, if I simply walked to my right, and then swing the camera over to reframe the hotel, or the motel. Then I've cleaned that up. Very simple. In this case, I'm in Hawaii. And I found this statue that I liked. But do you see all the busy stuff in the background, the people and the beach. And you remember how I said before, sometimes all it takes is to stoop down a little bit. Which will cause you to tilt your camera up to include the subject. And in doing so I can get rid of some of that. That kind of thing. Here's, this is actually an iPhone shot here. And I processed it to make it look a little different. Here's my wife and I. And here we're at the Salvador Dali museum. And look at all the busy stuff in the background. That's what happens when you hand your phone or your camera to somebody else. (audience laughing) Right? So when you hand your phone or your camera to somebody else, what do I do? I frame it up for them first. So instead of just handing it to them, they're gonna give you a snapshot which is not gonna be the best. So instead, I go oh wait a minute let me, you know they give it to you, make sure it looks good. And I say okay well hold on, ugh. And I say okay what can we do. Well, look at that one. Same spot, same people. Me before I lost 45 pounds (laughing). Look at that big gut on him. But, by going again, getting down lower, now that bench is completely covering up the stuff that was behind it. And much cleaner shot, isn't it? So I'm always looking for that. So here just, I liked whatever that thing is. But look at the junk in the background. So again dip low, tilt up. Got more sky with it so it's clean. And oftentimes it's that easy. Like the tourist and things that aren't in there, I've talked about that before. Just tilt up a little bit, crop above their heads. You look at this one, you'll see the boat. I got the picture but then before I walk away, I analyze the rest of the scene. And I say what else is in there. And I see is there any way I can get something cleaner. Well, isn't that a little cleaner? So I'm always thinking about clean backgrounds. So here's how I might work that little scene. Here's a scene, I found these. These are incense that they're making in this area. And I liked as a background for it, that sculpture. But you see all the junk that's in there? First you see yellow at the bottom edge. Well that yellow is pulling my attention down there because it contrasts with the purple that's there. And it's not really giving you anything when your flicks down there and you see it. So first I try to get rid of some of that then I start concentrating on what's up above. You see that big white sky? That's kind of a distraction. It pulls my eye there because it's so bright. So why not swing the camera a little bit towards the left to get less sky. There we go. We got a sign there though, that's still right on the edge. So why not keep exploring that scene. Moving around, and seeing if we can clean it up. There I got it. So you get the idea of how I start, and then I just work the scene. I get the first shot though. You never know if you're gonna miss something. If somebody's gonna walk into the scene and suddenly you can't get it. But then I work it. I look at the entire background, try to clean it up. Now with this image in Photoshop or in Lightroom, I might darken a teeny bit of the background to make it so there's even less. You know, to explore there. But hopefully it gives you some sense for what I think about when it comes to getting a clean image. Now part of that though, is thinking about the edges and corners. If you ever have a diagonal line anywhere near the edge of your frame, it will call people's attention to it. Even if just for a moment. It'll cause their eye to flick up there just to check it out. And I only wanna do that when there's a payoff when you get there. You're like "Cool! I went up here" "and look at what I got for doing so." well in this case, if you look at the upper left and upper right, there's detail that doesn't need to be there. I might be able to crop the image, or recompose and clean that up. Here I'm in Moscow. Do you see the shapes in the upper left and upper right? Just clean it up a teeny bit. So I'm looking at the corners and the edges. Do you see the corner in the upper left. That's one I might just do in Photoshop. Just put black in there. You know, I don't mind doing that. Here do you see that thing on the left side of the frame? That dark whatever it is? I'd rather clean that up. And oftentimes all it takes is just a little swinging of the camera. A slightly different angle. Here with these boats, like the little repetition of shapes, but do you see the beach and whatever that other dark stuff is on the edge? I would end up recomposing or cropping. And do you see the tree on the left side that's just kind of there? It's not part of really what I' trying to capture. That's just me being a little sloppy. But anyway, that should give you some ideas. So then what else? Oh actually that's not the one I'm thinking of. Where is my merging image? Take me just a moment here. Another thing that I'm gonna be looking for is when you have a three-dimensional scene, but we're not taking a three-dimensional photograph of that scene, there are a lot of issues we can run into. And one of those issues is that you can have near and far objects merge. Now this is an out of focus shot as far as he's concerned. So it's not the best picture, but notice that there's separation between his head and the dark stuff behind. But it's not uncommon to find it where those things just touch. If they touch, they visually merge. Because you don't have the three-dimensional quality of the scene that was there. We have a two flat-dimensional two-dimensional scene. And those two kind of become one. So it can be simple things. I look at what's in the background, and say how does it visually combine with what's near me. So here we have this guy. He's a fisherman. And do you see this pole coming up? Well that pole is just like this pole. It's part of the background. It's not really part of his canoe or whatever you wanna call it. But here they visually merge so it looks as if it is. With a little bit, just moving it. Now you notice that none of them are kind of merging with that. And so they're not combining visually. Here I like these little dragon things and the temple behind it, but they're visually merging. So I need to recompose. And just try to figure out how to get them to separate. And most commonly when this kind of stuff happens, it's a matter of moving left or right, up or down, a few inches. Maybe a foot or a half. And just changing your angle of your lens. So I'm always conscious of what's right behind somebody. Or some thing. And how might it visually combine with it. Since I'm making a flat photo, and just because I know it's way in the distance doesn't mean the person that's viewing my photo will know that. Is there a question? Yeah, so when you're doing your process, are these pictures that you shot for examples for us? Or is this like a process that you go through every time you go through a scene? Or are you figuring out before you shoot, are you attempting to figure out that these things are happening, or the corners are happening? What's your process, and are these things examples? What my process is, in general, is click and get the shot, period. You never know if that moment's gonna be gone by the time you figure out you camera settings, or anything else. Just take the picture. Then before I walk away, before I swing the camera away, I then scan the rest of the image. And I say does it have a clean background? Are the edges and corners clean? Is there anything merging from the background? And is there any way I can fine tune that more? So that example I showed you where I had like the little yellow stuff down at the bottom of the frame, and then the white sky and all that, I go through that exact process I showed you. Of that sequence. I might not always take all the photos. It might be that I'm just gonna okay, now I got the bottom out. Okay now let's swing this. Okay the sky is out. Okay, then that sign's out. Okay click, I got it. But I'll take at least the first photo. Because literally you never know what's gonna happen. Lightning could strike (audience laughing) and suddenly that thing isn't there anymore. You know, get the picture first. And then work it. So other things that I'm looking for is mysterious things in my photo that you cannot recognize because there's not enough of them to know what it is. So like this orange random thing, and this blue random thing, and this whatever that yellow thing is. I can't see enough of them to really know what they are. And to know how they relate to the scene. So I'm gonna try to get rid of them. Here this is fine. It's relatively clean all around. And here we're alright. But you gotta be careful how much of the body can you see. You need to be able to see enough of it so it feels like that person's really there and you can figure out what they're doing. Compared to if you end up with just little parts. Do you see this little leg right here? That's what I call mystery meat. It's like what the hell is that. It's the matter of if I were to swing littlest bit to my left, and swing the camera so it would reframe, that would be out of there. But otherwise that's a picture that I don't like because of that foot right there. I can retouch it out, but it could have just been not as sloppy when I took it in the first place. See those little sloppy shots there. I only got a tiny bit of it. Do you see the blue thing on the left? It's like what the heck is that? Well, I need to recompose to try to eliminate those kind of mysterious objects. And do you see the guy's partial head and shoulder? That's mystery meat. Its like, that's what you're not into. Here I got this. I framed the guy up with this doorway, but do you see and elbow? Over here. Those are overly easy to have, but it's also usually overly, well I shouldn't say overly easy, but it's usually not that hard to eliminate them. By slightly changing your angle, or get this shot, and then wait for him to move again. He might still be in the frame. Maybe he walks right across the opening here, but take a shot where now that part's clean. So you can composite the two together. I think I've showed you a little bit of that before. Here do you see a person taking a photo in the lower left? Yeah, that's mystery meat. That's what's this thing. If there was enough of them, if they were pointed at these things here, but. So that's another thing that I'm thinking of. Then, I find the diagonals seem to add energy to the image. They make it more dynamic. Now in this case, I already have some diagonals in that the angles of that roof that are here. Just so you know this is a turf home in Iceland. But, I'm gonna take that shot and then think about is there any way I might be able to get it to be even more dynamic by getting more angles into it. And oftentimes that has to do with shooting things at an angle. So that now there's even more angles found throughout that image. So we have tilting up. That's gonna create some angles. Sometimes it's helpful. But putting it at a corner, so you shoot it at angle it's gonna do more. Here I got this straight on. Feels pretty static and doesn't have very much energy. Look a the simple idea of tilting the camera up. Now we get the angles in. And to me, that's much more interesting. I don't know if it is to you or not. Everybody thinks differently. But, that helps. So here's where my subject, that's what caused me to pick up my camera. But it's pretty straight on. Straight on usually doesn't have that much energy. It's what everybody takes with their cellphones and such. How can I get angles into it? Ah, I just dip down below and shot pointing up. Or here, pointing up a bit. Or shoot it at an angle from the side. Angle from the side, angle from below. Try all sorts of different things. But you notice here I'm not lined up straight on with these. In case you don't know what they are, they're spices. You like wanna go with your finger and like flick one over (audience laughing) but you don't dare. But I don't remember if this is Dubai or if this Morocco or wherever this is, but. I can find out if I looked in my metadata. But there I could have shot it straight on, but getting all the angles in it, to me makes it much more interesting. So a lot of people including myself have a tendency of lining things up so you're straight on and square with it. And I'll take that picture because I don't know if that will be better than the one with angles in it. But then I'll try to swing it into an angle. And I don't just swing it at an angle and click, although I might. At least after I'm done clicking, I'll then look all the way around the edges and say is there any way I can clean that up a little bit. You notice that there's only one full circle right here. This one's got the tiniest microscopic bit, but otherwise those are clean. Over here relatively clean until we get to there. Ah that could have been cropped in a little further, but I thought about it. But be careful. You can get too much angles. Now this isn't too much for me. I like this, bicycles for rent that are at all these angles. But don't try to put too much into it by shooting this which already has angles at an angle. Because now it's just like what the hell, you're just, too much. And so I am trying to incorporate those ideas. Then other, ooh I don't know what I just clicked. Other things that I find to be useful is I try to find repetitive things. Sometimes it's a pattern, and break it up. By putting something else in there that interrupts the pattern. In this case, you see these stone tablets and the repetitive going by. But then there's something to break up the stone tablets. Here you see all the drawers. But there's something to break them up. If I just find the drawers and all it is is drawers with nothing to break it up, it doesn't have much energy to it. Not that much interest. But the fact that there's just something to break up that pattern, makes it so it becomes a much more interesting photograph. At least to me. Here, not as successful because they're so far away. I wish they were a bit closer. But these repetitive shapes of these vessels that are here, and then the people breaking them up. But I think I could have stayed there longer, maybe got a little closer and got them in where they're not so much a background element, they're a little more mid-ground. Like if they were here. And if I could get them to wear a bright red (laughing). Just a simple flower breaking up something. And just that like layer cake kinda look, but the birds break it up. So I'm always looking for these little patterns and repetition, and then something to break them up. And what I do here though, there it is without the something to break it up. It's just a bunch of repeating things, which does that feel anywhere near as interesting as when there's something to break it. Sometimes it's something you put in. You go put a flower in there. You go tell somebody to go stand over there. You do whatever. But if you break the pattern, then to me it's more interesting. Is there a question or a comment? Yeah I was wondering when you said that you're cropping out, are you cropping out in post? Are you cropping out by zooming in your camera, or are you cropping by getting closer or walking away? Let's talk about it. Here I have a folder of images. And one of the concepts to make strong images is crop after capture. Do it, please. Because it will be so much stronger if you do. So let's go and look at it. I'm gonna go and grab the crop tool here. I'm in the Develop module, Crop tool. You see this big empty space at the bottom? In case you don't know, we're in Iceland here. I'm gonna come up here now, and if I bring this up much closer. I would usually correct for some lens distortion that's seen here but we're not talking about lens distortion at the moment, so I'm gonna ignore that. But simply doing that can make this a much more strong picture. And if I just switch to another image. Okay here's the image, again we're in Iceland. This is a graffiti guy, I caught him putting the graffiti on. How often do you see that? You see the graffiti, but you don't see the guy doing it. So I got the shot, but then he looked at me and he stopped doing it, put his can down, and started doing things. So I could only get that one shot, and that's why I always try to get the shot first. Then start cleaning it up. So I grab my Crop tool. This distracting stuff off here I'll crop in. I'm going to bring down at the top, get rid of some of that air ducts. Although I might like that guy's face over on the left. Gonna bring this over. Try to get rid of that slop that's over there. And see if I wanna bring this up, can I get it with still his feet without. Maybe in there. But that's a lot stronger than the sloppy looking original. So sometimes they're great looking to begin with, but oftentimes they're cropped. Let me just show you the crop in some images. So here you can see how much more was in that frame before it was cropped. See this image. Look at how much more was in the frame. See how, clean it up. You can clean it up only so much in camera. And here do you see those bright light bulbs that were up at the top. Bright things and colorful things draw your eye. So I just crop them out. To clean that up. Oh it looks like that one's straight out of the camera. But you get the idea of how much cropping can play. Yeah? So then a question follow along, if you crop the unwanted things out in post, will this hurt your photo by making it a different size? You don't appear to be concerned about that. Is that true? Well if you thought about the gear that I talked about, you remember the camera I said I'd buy today? It's 42 megapixels. I can crop like crazy on that thing. If you have the really small cameras, they'll be 16 megapixels. 16 megapixels is fine for doing you know, like a smaller things. And you can sometimes print bigger depending on what the subject matter is, but you can't do as much cropping. And that's the advantage of having a higher resolution camera. And that's why the camera that I shot with on my last trip, which is the Sony down here, is 36 megapixels. That's a heck of a lot more than 16, which is what the really small cameras have. And it allows me to do extensive cropping. So I'm not as concerned with it. But it all depends what you plan to use the picture for. The bigger the print the bigger the use, the less cropping you can get away with. And I guess what I meant was, more about the ratios of the sizes. Like you weren't locking it to particular five by seven, eight by 10. It all depends on the use of the picture. If the use of the picture is going to be a print, and you want the print to be able to be put in a normal cheap frame, then you need to have it some normal aspect ratio. The width to height ratio. So it fits that kind of frame. If you have an odd one, then you're going to have to have custom framing. It's gonna be much more expensive. That type of thing. But if your use for the image is on web, or it's in a magazine. A magazine you can put whatever aspect ratio image you want like that unless it's on the cover or a two page spread. Then that's a very specific aspect ratio that you have to think about. When I crop this much like that, if I had a 16 megapixel camera, I could use that for the web and a few other things, but not a lot more. Because it just wouldn't be much data. If I have a 42 megapixel camera, which is the one I had as mine buy for me personally, I'm not saying you should, I could crop like that and still use it for some things. So it depends. But you can see how much cropping is involved with my shots. Look at that. But see the stuff on the bottom that I'm cropping out? Sometimes it's that I don't have the right lens on, so I can't zoom any further. I'm at the limit of my zoom. And other times there are other reasons that I can't do it. But you can see the crops. And I mean we could go through hundreds. I'm not, you've seen enough, heh, okay. But it's hard to not emphasize it more because it's so often I see it just being ignored. If you need the same aspect ratio, when you grab the corner of the crop rectangle, just hold the shift key. It'll keep the same aspect ratio. Thanks Ben, I think it can be rather freeing for a lot of people to learn that we don't have to just stick to the standard aspect ratios. Yeah, well it depends on your use of the picture. I mean, just think though, if you're trying to sell the picture as a print, that you know, there's that. In the scene, why should it always be in that same size frame? I don't like that. When I make larger prints I usually do custom stretched canvas prints. And they are custom aspect ratios.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Lightroom Presets Quickstart Guide
Lightroom Preset Sampler
Pre-Trip Planning
Actions Sampler Guide
Travel Photography Handbook
Actions Sampler
Lightroom Keywords
Big Set of Lightroom Presets
Practice Images
Travel Photogtaphy Mobile Guide
Gear List
Lightroom Tips and Keyboard Shortcuts

Ratings and Reviews


This was simply an amazing experience! Without a doubt the best investment of time and money I have experienced in quite awhile. Ben's complete command of the subject, the practical tips, suggestions and reference information was outstanding. I have enjoyed point and shoot photography for some time and recently decided to invest in some decent DSLR equipment (Canon EOS D70). I have a trip to Cape Town and Johannesburg South Africa rapidly approaching and thought it might be a good idea to take some classes and make an effort to get up the learning curve ASAP to take advantage of this travel opportunity. "Discovering" Creativelive and Ben Willmore's class was literally an answer to prayer! There is nothing like sitting at the foot of wisdom, taking notes, and having numerous "ah-ha" moments! This was great....looking forward to more classes. Thanks for the high quality effort!

a Creativelive Student

Genius! Ben is a brilliant master teacher - focused, clear and holds back no information. The best! This course has condensed the equivalent of 10 courses into one. He is a perfectionist in his approach and knows how to present the material. He is the leader in photoshop and photography "par excellence". Highly recommend any of his courses. Save your time and start with the best - everyone loves Ben!!!!

Nichole Sams

I feel the title of this class, Travel Photography, is much to limiting for what you are really going to get. As a wedding photographer, who dreams of traveling, I attending the class live in Seattle, and was hoping to get some inspiration for on location shoots. What I got, however, was a WHOLE LOT MORE. I would recommend this class to anyone with a camera and Lightroom. What I learned about how lightroom works and how to integrate it with photoshop is invaluable. I actually think they should charge WAY more for this course. The bonuses with purchase from the keywords (we are talking every key word you could possibly imagine) and the presets (holycow everything you would ever need) are worth exponentially more than the course price itself. Ben is a gentle easy going teacher and nice to listen to. His ease of teaching pretty complex ideas was truly wonderful. If you are reading this you must buy this course, it is well worth it!

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