Capturing Wildlife - Attention to Background

While strategies for photographing one animal may differ from another, a consideration that seems to be consistent in wildlife photography is background. For a subject like butterflies or dragonflies, avoiding thick foliage in the background can be very difficult. Aside from the background objects themselves, the most important thing to consider is depth of field (DOF). You want the subject to be sharp and the background unsharp or out-of-focus. This is to place emphasis on the subject. To achieve this, you need a narrow DOF (in contrast, landscape photographers seek the opposite because they want near and far objects to be sharp and in focus). To achieve a narrow DOF three things must be considered; distance between background and subject, aperture, and focal length.

DISTANCE: The farther away the foliage is from your subject, the more out-of-focus it will be. With enough distance, distinct objects blend together and become indistinguishable. Take a look at the photo below. It is obvious that red flowers dominated the background, but as they were several feet away, they are out-of-focus.

APERTURE should be set wide, typically f4 to f8. The wider it is (the smaller the f number), the more out-of focus the background will be. However, this is a bit tricky, because if you choose the widest aperture (i.e., f4 or 5.6), parts of your subject may become out-of-focus as well. The peacock image below was shot with an aperture of f5.6. I wanted to capture his feathers behind his in-focus profile, but I wanted them to be out-of-focus. The distance between the feathers and the peacock's head was about one foot. But with an open aperture, they appear out-of-focus, just as I wanted them to be.

FOCAL LENGTH: The greater the focal length, the lower the DOF. For all the images here, I used at least 400 mm. Indeed, most wildlife photographs are shot with telephoto lenses (+200 mm), so backgrounds are naturally out-of-focus leaving the animal in focus. Here's one of my bird images from Biscayne Bay, shot at 400 mm. With that focal length, everything behind the bird is out-of-focus. For this shot, I wanted to frame the bird with the mangrove roots.

The last thing to consider is the background objects and where they are placed within the frame. Here's where the dynamic background can add interest and compliment your subject. In this case, the background is not something you want to avoid, rather, you want to work with it to enhance your image. Consider the image above. I really liked the patterns of the mangrove roots in contrast with the bright white egret.

Now take a look at the image below. You can see that the dragonfly is backlit as the bright area in the top left corner represents the sun. Between the sun and dragonfly are some grasses. After a few attempts, I moved into a position where the grasses appear to "shoot out" of the bottom left corner behind the dragonfly, almost looking like flames. I loved the effect and believe the dynamic pattern adds to the image without competing with the dragonfly.

My last example below shows another dragonfly, but this time with a very busy background! Adding to the color of the background is the blue sky between the leaves. With an aperture of f7.1, focal length at 400mm and approximately 2-3 feet of distance between background and dragonfly, the plant is out-of-focus, but with distinct patterns and contrasts. Here's where I had to be a little savvy when processing the image in Photoshop. I selected the dragonfly's wings and boosted the contrast and saturation, but did the opposite with the selected background.

So you see, background is critical to a good image of a butterfly or dragonfly, or any animal for that matter. But with proper use of DOF, you can make those background patterns and colors work for you and your subject. One last piece of advice. When focusing on your subject, take a shot and examine it on the LCD. Make adjustments accordingly, including changing your position. In fact, look through the view finder as you move slightly left, right, up or down, and play with it. And keep on shooting!

Thanks for looking on and if you are interested in receiving tutorials in Photoshop or individualized workshops in the field, please check out my website and feel free to contact me at