Conducting a Background Check
Before pressing the shutter release, its important to make sure everything is in order by conducting a background check.
When shooting with your camera, it can be tempting to focus on your subject, but literally and figuratively. It's only natural to care more about the reason why you're taking a picture and allow whatever else gets caught up in your viewfinder fall where it may in the frame. Surely the important stuff is more important than the unimportant. If you follow me here that is. But there's a flaw in this line of reasoning. You know what you consider important in an image. But how will the viewer? They have to rely on the cues you provide in how the image is shot to make their judgement.
The eye is naturally drawn to the brightest part of the frame. If there are no clear winners here, saturated colors may be what it takes to grab the viewer's attention, with warmer colors tending to win out over cooler ones. Items positioned along "rule of thirds" grid lines and intersections really do tend to draw more attention than those at other points in the frame, other things being equal. There are countless ways to look at the art of composing compelling images, but each of these can work both for you and against you. They can be tools to help you emphasize what you care about in an image and how you feel about it. They can also provide avenues for thieves that steal the viewer's attention, diverting it to elements you'd rather them not pay attention to.
If you do have to accept some element in the background that you'd rather not have to deal with at all, what then? If you want to get the shot, that bright, reflective tree trunk is going to be in there somewhere, so what do you do about it? In at least some cases, a slight shift in camera position can provide the freedom you need to decide where to place that tree. It would seem clear that you don't want to place it dead center or at one of the "rule of thirds" "power points." But avoid placing it overly close to the edge of the frame, too, as this placement can easily attract the viewer's eye as they examine the resulting image. Look for someplace as benign as you can and just live with it. I've found that such issues, once you can open them on your computer, don't always look as bad as I feared. And if they still bug me, I'm not above toning the brightness down a tad right there digitally. I wouldn't go so far as to remove that tree or anything, but knocking the shine down a stop or two seems reasonable. Photographers have been using selective dodging and burning in the film darkroom since the early days.
Don't forget to check your depth of field. Not all landscape shots need to be shot with the lens stopped down as far as it will go. The more you are able to open back up the more you will be able to blur distracting background elements.
I occasionally find myself faced with an uninteresting "no man's land" occupying an uncomfortable percentage across the middle of the frame. I may have found a worthy top and lower portion of the frame, but there's no continuity between the two. It's easy to see how this happens. After surveying the scene to find interesting elements, thoughts turn next to how to build compositions that combine more than one of those finds in the same image. Some combinations will obviously work better than others. But some are, frankly, a bit of a stretch. Zoom in to position something interesting in the upper right, and another object of interest in the lower left, and you could very well be left with a vast area of wasted space in between. Zoom out to frame the scene more loosely and you'll position those objects more comfortably in the frame but doing so will also render then smaller than the tighter shot. Everything gets smaller as you zoom out.
Sometimes, the only reasonable solution is not to shoot both objects in the same shot. Some potential shots seem like good ideas in your head, but just don't work out when you make them a reality by shooting them. But all is not necessarily lost. See if you can improve things with a change of shooting position. By shooting from a lower position, you can shoot at a more oblique angle and visually compress the separation. Drop down far enough, and you will find yourself straight in line with objects you used to be looking down on. Somewhere short of that extreme, and you may find a pleasing arrangement of subjects that minimizes the gap between.
It's no doubt easier to try this on your than it is to follow descriptions here. Get your camera out some time and see for how things move in relation to how you move and alter your shooting position. Those of you who never liked special relation problems in school can now better appreciate the practical applications. You're welcome.
This sort of attention to background detail (or lack of distracting detail) is obviously easier to achieve with a willing subject. But wildlife shooters can still get in on the act to some extent. Rather than simply hanging out, waiting for all your efforts to pay off when the elk moves into frame, spend at least a bit of that time familiarizing yourself with the major sources of distraction. You may not be able to avoid all of them when the pace starts to pick up, but knowing what's out there should at least improve your odds of avoiding the out of bounds markers.
Sometimes I'm asked how far I am willing to go to physically remove distracting elements before I shoot. Everyone will need to be comfortable where they draw the line themselves, but I tend to be pretty conservative in this regard. I have no problem picking up trash that should never have been there in the first place of course, but natural objects seem to warrant further consideration. If a golden yellow autumn leaf was destined to fall from the branch soon anyway, I make take an occasional liberty to hurry its demise. But if presented by a branch covered in such leaves, there's no way I would be so bold. Temporarily holding a leaf out of the way is clearly better than breaking it off in any event. Consider, too, that other photographers will no doubt be faced with the same choice as you later in that afternoon and in the days after. The impact of any one may be minimal, but the combined result in a heavily travelled area could be significant. Keep in mind that you will face another ethical dilemma once you get your images onto your computer. You can always clone the distraction out entirely in Photoshop and not risk ecological disaster.
Backgrounds can seem of only minimal interest when shooting. It's only after the fact when you first notice some form of distraction that might have been avoided. But once you do, it can become hard not to notice it. Before you shoot, take a moment to conduct a background check. The image you save just may be your own.