How to Get Better Backgrounds in Wildlife Photography

When you are scrolling through photographs, especially those of wildlife, flowers and plants if you are like me you are drawn to those that have beautiful backgrounds. I’m not talking about landscapes and sunsets now, but the silky smooth background that supports the focus of the photograph and turns it from a normal wildlife shot into something special.

Whether the photograph you are taking is a portrait or a contextual image of the animal in its habitat, you need to find a way to isolate the subject from the background. You don’t want your subject being engulfed by the background and so using the available light and surrounding landscape to form this isolation is a skill that is worth mastering.

RemoVe background distractions

While it is easy to photoshop distractions from your photographs, how much easier would it be to start without them in the first place. Removing an annoying branch is easy in photoshop, but by thinking and looking before you start taking photographs you can eliminate this fiddle.

A beautiful robin with ice crystals on its head, shame about the branches!

When you start setting up look for anything that may be distracting. Is there a branch or piece of grass over your subject? Is there a bright spot of light filtering through the trees? Is there a branch in completely the wrong place?

This thistle was a great perch for the goldfinch but the barbed wire behind was not so good. By altering the angle of the camera this could be eliminated.

Choose where you are going to stand, don’t just arrive at a spot and start shooting. Take time to look for the best angle and move around if you aren’t completely happy. Even moving a few centimetres can make all the difference. Be super critical about everything that is within the frame while you are setting up. If there is anything that you don’t like then adjust your position.

Distance between background and subject

While you are looking for background distractions you should also be looking for the distance between your subject and the background.

The further the distance between the two the smoother the background will appear. Too close together and the background will be too detailed and textured.

This oystercatcher was stood on a stone wall. By getting down low it was possible to have the blue of the sea behind rather than the green field with white blobs of sheep

You should also think about the angle that you are shooting from. Get down low so you can make the most of the environment and be eye to eye with your subject. Changing your position can alter the background that is behind your subject. If there is something distracting in the background then move your camera up or down to see if you can change the appearance of the background.

Even, Uniform Backgrounds

While you are looking for backgrounds you should find somewhere that has a fairly even appearance to the background. Try to avoid trees with light filtering through as this will give a distracting streaked appearance or fences that will give a hard line in the background. High contrast areas where the light is different in two adjacent areas can also be annoying and distracting.

While this background is smooth the big black blob is really distracting

While wildlife will not know what it is sitting in front of it is possible to move your position in an attempt to eliminate distractions.

The type of lens you are using will also help with smoothing out the background and making it more even. This is especially the case if you are using a super-telephoto lens with a large aperture that naturally blurs the background into a silky smooth mush.

Aperture SizE

A larger aperture size (low numbers like f/2.8 or f/4) means that the depth of field in focus reduces. This means that a small area will be focussed with more being blurry. This can be both in front of and behind your subject giving a beautiful smooth surround to the subject. There is a fine balance however between subject being in focus and background blur.

A puffin with yellow and pink flowers and blue sea
The narrow depth of field on this shot meant the flowers in the foreground and the sea behind were smooth

If your camera lens does not have a really large aperture setting it is still possible to get this effect by increasing the distance between the subject and the background.


Choice of Lens

If you have the luxury of choosing your lens you should choose the longest available.

The longer the lens the more it compresses the scene and the more the background will blur. A 500mm lens will produce a smoother background than a 100mm lens with all other factors remaining equal.

face of a long eared owl
The background behind this owl was bright and messy but getting in close meant that it wasn’t seen

The same compression can be achieved by getting closer to your subject while keeping the subject to background distance the same. However you do need to be aware of the welfare of the subject and use it as a last resort technique.

If you can’t achieve the background you want with your camera or lens then think about getting a tight portrait so the background does not matter.

light, cloud and weather

When photographing wildlife you have no control over the light and weather conditions. The ideal situation is a bright but cloudy day with even light.

This puffin was taken on a day when the sea mist came in. This meant that the distracting sea cliffs behind him disappeared into the fog

If there is bright sunlight this can make it really hard to smooth out the background. The contrast can be too high and whatever you try it will not work. In these conditions you may be better off adjusting your position and going for a low key image with a black background.

Yellow buttercup on a black background

Cloud, rain and fog make for the perfect smooth background without too much effort. The low contrast light of the day lends itself to a smooth background perfectly. Even a hazy sunset can give the perfect amount of blur to allow your subject to really stand out.

The golden hour light combined with a heat haze made this sheep in Shetland stand out against the background.