Why Does Aunt Rita Have Three Hands?

If your photos seem a little boring, then maybe you're not paying attention to background details.  It's taken me years to really grasp this concept, but one key to taking consistently interesting photographs is keeping an eye on what's behind your subject.  Managing background details can result in better photos instead of forgettable snapshots.

Minding what's in your background helps improve your photos in a couple of ways.  The most immediately obvious is that it helps eliminate distractions.  It's easy to get caught up in the moment, and fail to notice that a telephone pole or a tree is growing out of your loved one's head, or that a garbage truck is just now cruising down that scenic screet.  Your brain can easily tune out these details while you're busy making sure everyone is smiling.

Keep an eye out for distracting patterns, signs or general clutter that will later confuse viewers since these compete for visual attention. Remember that everything in your viewfinder becomes part of the final image, so while you see two people looking at the camera right now, it's possible you won't notice that construction sign or rude graffiti intruding into the frame until after the fact.  Let your eye rove around the corners of the viewfinder and make sure there's nothing in there you don't want.  You may not be able to "Photoshop" it easily after the fact, so it's far better to exclude undesirable features from the scene in the first place.

Sap buckets hanging on maple trees.  Here I used the element of repetition to add visual interest to the photo.

The second important aspect of considering the background is using elements of the scene to add interest to the photo.  This might be as simple as choosing a colorful background that complements the main subject - a blue car parked by an orange wall, for example.  Another time-honored technique is to use repetition when your subject is one of multiple identical objects, usually keeping the focus on the closest one.  If the subject is a person, you may want to surround them with relevant personal items so that you create what's known as an environmental portrait.  If your subject is a writer, for example, you may want to show them sitting with their keyboard, a thesaurus and other writing tools at their desk.

Whatever approach you decide to use, include only background elements that add to your composition.  Exclude anything that doesn't add to the photograph.  If there are unwanted elements in the background, you may find that moving even a few inches in a different direction eliminates the unwanted element, or enables you to include more of what you do want.  If you can't exclude an unwanted background, try to ensure that it's out of focus.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you may find your photos become much more interesting to yourself and others.