Friday, May 11, 2007


Backgrounds don’t get the attention they deserve. Take music, for instance. You can buy a CD with a featured famous singer, but whoever notices the musicians supporting her/him in the background? Yet, what would the soloist be without all that support?

CDs are the least of my worries, though. My personal ongoing frustration involves backgrounds in photographs. Those who know me well are aware that I take a lot of digital pictures. I will soon have almost 20,000 photos in my iPhoto library on my computer. I can attest that it is very difficult for me, as an amateur photographer, to find a good background. It’s something that has always bugged me.

For Caroline’s 4th birthday party, Rachel chose the theme of “books.” She had books displayed around the house, gave books as favors, asked for book donations for United Way, and she wanted a picture of Caroline reading a book to display on the party invitations. I sent her over a hundred pictures from my collection of Caroline reading books, looking at books, and carrying books. Out of all those photographs, she ended up choosing one taken on her front porch, because, as she said, “the background was decent. All the other pictures had messy backgrounds.” (You know - the usual house clutter. Usually my house.)

In my last post, I decried the subtle use of photo manipulation to drop 10 pounds off the subject because it was not a “true” picture. Using that argument, a messy background in a candid picture is really a “true” picture - but, of course, not an aesthetically pleasing one.

I make sure to take a family photograph for our Christmas letter every year. There are always the usual annoying things to deal with - getting a picture with everyone looking at the camera, keeping little ones happy, deciding what to wear, how I can best hide in the back somewhere - but the most aggravating thing is wondering where to stage the photo. I never can find a good background. That’s usually because - well - our house is lived in. It’s not a showplace. It’s not a magazine spread. And it’s definitely not a studio.

The outdoors can provide a lovely background. For some reason, though, nobody wants our Christmas picture taken with everyone bundled up in coats, standing outside in cold Maine weather with frozen smiles on their faces. (You have to admit, though, that’s realism at its best.)

Rachel recently took the girls to a department store photography studio. The photographer spent the whole time trying to get the girls to smile (waving Elmo at them) and directing them to sit up straight, shoulders back, heads not tilted, etc. Rachel said every time Caroline was ordered to change one thing in her posture, something else went awry. It was a very anxiety-provoking and tense situation for everyone involved.

It stands to reason that the best person to direct a family photograph is the family photographer - and that’s me. This background problem frustrates me. I have everything else I need. I have decent photography skills. I have an adequate camera. I have a tripod. I have some idea of balance and lighting and all that sort of thing. I have photogenic subjects. I just lack the background. I think there are probably a lot of people in my situation.

So here’s my idea. I think every mall ought to have a studio for rent by half-hour increments. The studio should contain all the accoutrements of a professional photographer’s studio - the steps, benches, cushions, and chairs, the lights, the cute little accessories like teddy bears and so on - but most of all, those great backgrounds, like the billowing white curtain, the professional gray screen, and the pull-down seasonal backdrops. The client brings the camera and the family. There is minimal set-up cost for the rental agency, as they don't have the expense of cameras and paid staff. It would be more relaxing for the people being photographed without a stranger poking and prodding and cajoling and barking orders. You have to admit - relaxed family members make better photographs.

I believe I’ve covered most everything. Oh yes - one wall would have to be a giant window, where mall shoppers can enjoy watching the amateur attempts - and make sure“indecent” photographers find the studio an irresistible setting for their craft.

I think my idea has merit. Ed, of course, thinks it’s unfeasible. I won’t go into his list of reasons here. Suffice it to say he has never had to coordinate a family photo. So if you have money to invest in this studio-rental project, contact me ASAP. Christmas is only 7 months away.


Cuidado said...

Good idea.

Patricia Tryon said...

First, I apologize if you're not interested in any ideas about backgrounds -- and it is possible, anyway, that you know about my two suggestions.

Adobe Elements is a great way to clean up junk from a background. I use PhotoShop, but Elements seems to have plenty of firepower for taking care of annoying backgrounds.

Another strategy, if your camera has any manual features, is to use the smallest aperture (f/stop). This gives you the option of having sharp focus on what you want the picture to be "about"; other objects, typically those in the background, blur.

The PhotoShop (well, Elements) option makes it possible to build any background you'd like: Hawaii, Paris -- heck, Mars!

I enjoy stopping by your blog from time to time. We're in the empty nest stage, too, and just today I put in some very productive culling time. The Habitat for Humanity Thrift Store made out great today!