Syd: Clean backgrounds

One of the key differences between an amateur photographer’s sports photos and a professional’s is not what’s in the photo, it’s what’s NOT in the photo. In other words, it’s not the moment of action that was caught by the photographer, it’s catching the action with nothing else in the image. Often, this means capturing the action with a background that’s clean, or has nothing in it that will detract from the action.

What is it?
Here are examples of a clean backgound:

  • The background has no fences, people, buildings, advertising boards or other distractions that will take the eye of the viewer away from the action
  • The background is blurred through the use of a shallow depth of field
  • The background is often darkened because the action is brighter than the background

How to achieve a clean background?
Experience, equipment, technique and practise. Let’s take each of these and explain in more detail.

  • Experience. Watch where the professional photographers sit or shoot from at an event. While there are often constraints on where they are allowed to shoot from, it’s usually no accident that they often shoot from the same place. If you’re ever at an international event like a Grand Slam tennis tournament, Grand Prix or a football match, you’ll see photographers clustered into small areas. They do this not because they like each other and want to chat, it’s because it’s a good position to get action with a clean background. Often, it’s a very narrow and limited area where the player, car or action is in the right place to get the shot, so they are all there, and they wait, wait and wait. Watch where the pros go, and go and shoot next to them. Or if you’re at an event for the first time, just ask another photographer where they like to shoot from and they’ll often tell you where’s best
  • Equipment. This helps a lot. If you don’t have a lens capable of shooting with a shallow depth of field eg f 2.8/4 or faster, it’ll be more difficult to get a blurred background, but not impossible. The key to getting a nice blurred background is not only to shoot “wide open” at the largest aperture you have, but it’s the distance to the subject. If you use your 200mm lens on a DX sensor and shoot at f2.8 and the subject is 100 metres from you, then you’ll have a depth of field of close to 30 metres. That means everything from 88-115 metres will be sharp and in focus. But, if the subject is just 10 metres away, then the depth of field is just 0.26 metres so things in the background will be nice and blurred. Here’s a Depth of Field calculator for you to do some calculations If you don’t have a fast lens you can also pick a position to shoot from like high in the stands where you’re guaranteed a clean background because of the angle of the shot
  • Technique. So, work out your “shoot zone” with your lens, body and DoF calculator. Pick a spot to shoot from where the background distractions are limited. And then wait for the action to get into the shoot zone. Try to resist shooting the action when its not in the shoot zone or just compare the shots you get when the action is not in the shoot zone and you should see a marked difference between the photos.
  • Practise. Like everything else, keep practising. Shoot from 2 or 3 different positions at every event if you can. Arrive early at the event, take some test shots by focusing your lens on where the action will happen and check out the background to see if it’s clean. You don’t have to wait until the action or event actually start. Check the image to see if there’s any annoying fluoro bib or signage or security guard in the background. And when it all comes together, you won’t be able to stop looking at your action shots with a clean background!

Happy shooting.


*Please Read Below*
Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by supporting us on Patreon and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.

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