How to Get Creamy Backgrounds
An example of the creamy background that is desired in fine art wildlife photography
When taking wildlife photos with the intent of selling them as fine art, you want the wildlife to be the focal point of the image. This is easier accomplished when nothing is competing for the attention of the viewer in the photo. Distracting backgrounds are one thing you want to avoid. So how do you get those creamy backgrounds in which the detail is lost? In this post, I will explain exactly that.
A coastal brown bear photographed with a 400mm f2.8 aperture gives a beautiful background effect
First and foremost you want the aperture as wide open as possible meaning the depth of field is shallow. Expensive lenses such as 400mm f2.8 or 600mm f4.0 prime lenses allow for those very shallow depths of fields at far distances. But they are expensive. If using a zoom lens you want to maximize the aperture, but this may not be enough to get the desired effect.
Close proximity to this ram and a far distance to the background allows for the creamy background even with a zoom lens that has a higher maximum aperture
Another key consideration is the distance of the subject from the background and in relation to the distance of the subject to the camera. The further the subject is from the background and the closer it is to the camera the more likely you will receive the desired effect. An animal only a few feet away from a tree line makes it difficult to produce a creamy background, an animal 30, 50, or even a hundred feet away from a tree line and only a short distance from your camera will more likely produce the desired effect.
This fox kit is too close to the tree line to be able to achieve the desired background effect
The closer you get to the subject the more it helps to achieve the desired effect. This means you need to be willing to move around to get the shot.
The mountain goat is too far away from the camera to get the creamy background effect of the trees behind it
Also, the angle you shot at is important. If you are shooting downward on your subjects, such as ducks in the water for example you instantly shorten the distance from the subject and the background if you are shooting downward. If you are shooting at eye level you will get better photos and if you can shoot slightly upward you increase the distance between the subject and the background increasing the likelihood of a creamy background.
The upward angle of this shot helps blur the background but the sky breaking through atop the photo distracts from the subject
As much as you focus on capturing certain aspects of your subject, you need to be just as considerate of focusing on the detail in the background. If there is lots of variation between light and dark in the background it will be distracting. You want to look for solid backgrounds, so trees in which aspects of the sky can be seen through them will only distract from your subject not enhance it, sticks, horizon lines that intersect your subject all act as distractions. The best backgrounds are solid dark areas such as patches of spruce trees, distant hills which are higher in the image than your subject, distance grasses, etc.
The ideal conditions to achieve a creamy background effect, eye level to the subject, close proximity to the subject, significant distance to the background, and maximum aperture
In summary, the important aspects to accomplish creamy backgrounds are a maximum aperture, separation of the subject from the background, being near the subject, and the angle of the shoot.