While on a recent holiday I had the opportunity to do some experimenting with blue backgrounds in some of my compositions. This article shares a selection of sample photographs and discusses the advantages and challenges when using monochromatic backgrounds in images.
All of the photographs in this article were captured on the same afternoon, during bright cloudless conditions that produced brilliant blue skies. I began my experimentation with some floral subject matter. Let’s have a look at three sample images.
In this first image the pink subject matter doesn’t seem to coordinate very well with the solid blue sky in terms of colour balance. The tangle of flowers, leaves and basket material don’t seem visually strong enough to be used with a solid blue background. To my eye the background overpowers the subject matter rather than complimenting it. The pink flower colour doesn’t seem to have sufficient depth to work with the expansive blue background. An option with this composition may have been to come in much closer to the subject matter and lessen the amount of blue background.
The second image of the purple tree blossoms also does not seem strong enough visually to be used with the solid blue background. The photograph is flat and lifeless. I can imagine this photograph working better if there were some nice, puffy white clouds in the top left hand corner, or if the flowers on the tree were white. Violet and purple hues seem to be challenged when trying to compete with bright blue.
I like the visual impact of the third image with its leaves up against the bright blue sky. The back lighting helps to highlight the greens and yellows in the leaves. The simple pattern of angled leaves bleeding off the four sides of the image help to lessen the potential competition with the blue background. The absence of any clouds in the sky also helps to accent the shape, colour and texture of the green leaves. To my eye, a predominantly green/yellow subject coordinates well with a bright blue background. The strong corner exits also help to give the image good eye flow.
Unfortunately there weren’t any other birds in the area other than some gulls with red beaks, legs and eye rings. Nevertheless I found this image instructive. The red highlights in this image work well against the bright blue background because the white body of the gull gives the composition some visual relief and provides some needed contrast with the bird’s red details. Even though the red details are small visual areas in the image, they command attention, making the blue background pull back visually. This tells me that strong colour density and contrast on the main subject are important factors when composing with a bright blue background.
Now let’s have a look at the impact of contrast and well-defined details using some very simple subject matter.
This is about a simple a composition as one can photograph. If you’re like me, when viewing this image your eye immediately goes to the streaks and texture on the white painted surface, the nail heads, and ends up focusing on the one of the two rust spots. I think this demonstrates how a monochromatic background can help focus a viewer’s eye on small, yet important details in a photograph. When coupled with a strong angle, it can also help create an almost 3-D effect by accentuating the angle.
The strong parallel lines and scrolled details on this roofline are so strong that one hardly even notices the strong, blue background. This indicates that a monochromatic background, even one as strong as bright blue, can be used to help accentuate the natural and dramatic visual flow of a photographic subject.
The above image features a simple, but strong, repeating pattern. As we saw with the roofline image, the blue background in the photograph above seems to almost drift away. It highlights and compliments the metallic shapes in the image rather than competing with them. This indicates that strong monochromatic backgrounds work well with subject matter than has clean, uncomplicated repeating patterns and lines.
This photograph of a ship’s exhaust stack is another very simple composition. You’ll see two corner exits in this image. The first is in the bottom left corner where the white trim exits the frame. The second one is a strong, inferred corner exit created by the smokestack’s upward angle pointing directly to the top right corner.
These corner exits create visual relief for a viewer’s eye, allowing it to flow through the subject matter without getting disrupted. This also allows the reader’s eye to better notice the rust details on the main portion of the exhaust pipe. The bright blue background acts as a focusing agent that does not compete with the subject matter at all. This tells us that paying attention to the eye flow in a photograph is an important composition consideration when using a monochromatic background.
Our final image is another very simple composition. The bright blue background plays second fiddle in the photograph. A viewer’s gaze is drawn to the three metal fasteners.
This strong visual direction is created by the combination of two bottom corner exits, two strong elliptical shapes formed by the hem on the dark blue material and the white piping, the contrast of the darker material wrapped around the white piping, and the three metal fasteners. The eye flow in this photo would have suffered if the monochromatic background would have been any colour other than bright blue, or if it had any kind of details in it.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.
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