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Paying Attention to the Background

I was lucky enough to be able to spend a few days out on Route 66 in Arizona in mid December. The Mother Road provides a mix of nostalgic roadside attractions along with side some pretty amazing scenery.

One challenge that I encountered was having elements in the photo that didn't go with the story I was trying to tell. This would be a modern car, a sign, or something else that just didn't fit. Sometimes I was able to figure out an angle or wait for the right moment to take the shot. Other times there was nothing that I could really do about the problem.

Let's look at some examples. In this first shot is the historic Aztec Motel in Seligman AZ.

The modern car just does not fit with the scene I wanted to capture. By moving around and trying different angles, I was able to hide the car. I also think the new angle did a nicer job of capturing the scene.

While there is a different vehicle in the background, it is older and the same color palette as the motel so it is not as distracting.

Sometimes, a different angle is not possible. I wanted to get a shot of Mr D'z Route 66 Diner in Kingman AZ. Unfortunately, the road in front of the diner is very busy. My first couple of shots contained late model vehicles driving by.

I didn't mind the trike in the foreground. I think the reason being that the American flag on the trike fit with the general mood of the photo. The two pickup trucks definitely don't fit. In this case, finding a different angle was not possible. I decided to wait until there were no cars or trucks on the road. I knew this would probably take a while. My patience was rewarded when a tow truck with an old Ford cab drove up the road.

Sometimes things just have a way of working out. But what happens when there are no angles that will work, and waiting around won't make a difference?

That was the case when I was taking some night shots at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ.

The late model car in the background was not going to move before morning. Changing angles changed the relationship between the elements in the scene to where they just didn't look right to me. In this case, I needed to make sure that the car "faded into the background." Event though there was a light shining directly on the car, I was able to use the brush tool in Lightroom to bring down some of the highlights.

It is easy, especially when traveling, to forget about what is happening in the background of our photos. Unfortunately, having distractions in the background can ruin an image. When I evaluate a scene and discover distractions, my process is as follows:

  1. Can I find a better angle, or backup and zoom in more?

  2. Will the distraction move out of the frame?

  3. Is the distraction something that I can remove in post processing?

  4. Is there a way to minimize the distraction and still have it in the frame?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then I have a high degree of confidence that I will like the result. If the answers are all no, I will still take the shot as a memory shot. For example, this cliche shot of "the corner" in Winslow Arizona.

I could spend hours removing the antenna and tree branches from the right side, and maybe do a sky replacement. The reality is that this is really more of a memory shot and all the additional editing effort is still not going to make this an interesting photo. I am still glad I have the shot, because it fits the overall experience that I had on the trip.


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