Choosing the Best Foreground and Background

choosing the right background and foreground in wildlife photography

It has often been said that the backgrounds and foregrounds of an image are just as important as the subject itself. With most cameras today it is not too difficult to have a sharp subject full in the frame. However, how we frame our subjects within its surroundings, with the right foreground and background, can set your images apart from the rest.

Keeping It Clean

One of the most important aspects of choosing the right background and foreground is often to keep it clean. The cleaner and simpler the surroundings, the more your subject is centre of attention and stands out in the frame. Sometimes all this involves is moving half a meter to the left or right, or up or down, so you are not including that annoying fence post or tree root in the background of your shot. This fox photo demonstrates the benefits of a clean foreground and background. With the soft greens in the foreground of the frame, your eye is lead towards the subject. Choosing to shoot against the thickest area of woodland, with no distracting branches or highlights of light shining through, left a clean background for the fox to stand out against.

wildlife photography background and foreground
Red Fox – Canon 1 dx, Canon 500mm, 1/1600 sec @ f4, ISO 1000


When shooting wildlife, no matter how exciting the moment, it is important to always think of the finished image. By choosing your surroundings carefully you can select which colours work within your frame. If the foreground and background colours are contrasting too much with the subject, then this can distract from an aesthetic and clean image. Take this as an example: orangutans are often shot against the green foliage of their rainforest habitats, but I instead lined up the infant with a tree trunk in the background, allowing the brown colouring to compliment the red hair of the animals.

orangutan photography tips
In Mothers Arms – Canon 7d, Canon 500mm, 1/200sec @ f4, ISO 1000

Choosing what colours to keep in and take out of a frame can make small, but important, improvements to the overall image. By having a low enough angle in this meerkat shot the background includes the light-blues of the morning sky. This ensures the meerkat stands out against the sandy coloured spikey salt grass.

backgrounds in wildlife photography
Meerkat Sential – Canon 1dx, Canon 500mm, 1/2000sec @ f4, ISO 400

Choosing Your Depth of Field

Sometimes your background and/or foreground cannot be helped. Perhaps you are restrained by shooting from a vehicle or a hide. In this situation you can choose what you would like to keep in focus instead, and what you would like to lose in the bokeh. With many wildlife photographers it is popular to keep the foregrounds and backgrounds out of focus, making the subject stand out in the frame, and give the image depth. With the image below of the hedgehog, keeping all of the leaves in focus would have created a very messy and distracting foreground for the viewer. Choosing to keep the leaves out of focus, by using a wide aperture, creates a bokeh effect and leads the viewer’s eyes towards the subject.

Further Reading: “How to Create a Beautiful Bokeh

Choosing a wildlife photo background and foreground
Hedgehog – Canon 1dx, Canon 300mm, 1/1600 sec, @5.6, ISO 5000

To maintain the impact of this bear walking into the frame, a low f-stop number is needed to soften a potentially distracting background. As the tree line behind the bear is relatively close, choosing a high f-stop would have kept this relatively in focus, and the subject would not stand out against the foliage.

Wildlife backgrounds
Brown Bear – Canon 1dx, Canon 500mm, 1/4000sec @f4, ISO 3200

Playing With Light in Backgrounds

Working with light and shadows in your backgrounds and foregrounds can bring about some great effects. If ever the opportunity arises in wildlife photography, it is very satisfying to shoot against dark backgrounds. This can really highlight the detail on your subject. By under exposing an image (this can be done by adjusting the exposure compensation), you can throw the shadows into darkness for a very clean effect.

Leopard – Canon 1dx, Canon 500mm, 1/5000sec @ f4, ISO 2000

The same principle has been applied here with this photo of a red deer stag. The tree line in the background is in shadow – this is done by exposing for the highlights of the deer’s antlers, darkening the shadows sufficiently. The end result is that the antlers are highlighted against a very clean background.

Red Deer photography
Red Deer – Canon 1dx, Canon 500mm, 1/6400 sec @ f4, ISO 1600

One of the positives with working outside of a hide is that you can physically line yourself up with the darkest part of a background. With this meerkat image below, stepping a meter to the left or right and the subject would have been lost against bright shafts of light, but by lining it up with an area of shade I introduced the ‘halo effect’, allowing my subject to ‘pop’.

Meerkat at sunrise – Canon 1dx, Canon 500mm, 1/4000sec @ f4, ISO 250

“But I Could Not Get A Clean Background!”

There are times when the foreground and background will not work together. The area may be dense and there is no option of repositioning to remove distracting artefacts, and possibly the background is too close to properly throw out of focus. However, with perseverance, a shot can be achieved by taking a close-up portrait image, eliminating the distracting background all together.

Further Reading: “The Importance of Backgrounds

Mountain gorilla tom way
Mountain Gorilla – Canon 1dx, Canon 300mm, 1/250 sec @ f4, ISO 5000


Visit Tom's website

Tom is a young fine art wildlife photographer based in Buckinghamshire. He particularly has a passion for photographing mammals in the UK and around the world. Tom now regularly exhibits his work at exhibitions in the UK and guides photographic workshops and safaris.

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