Experimenting with Blue Backgrounds

While on a recent holiday I had the opportunity to do some experimenting with blue backgrounds in some of my compositions. This article shares a selection of sample photographs and discusses the advantages and challenges when using monochromatic backgrounds in images. 

All of the photographs in this article were captured on the same afternoon, during bright cloudless conditions that produced brilliant blue skies. I began my experimentation with some floral subject matter. Let’s have a look at three sample images.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 38.8 mm, efov 104.8 mm, f/6.3, 1/250, ISO-160

In this first image the pink subject matter doesn’t seem to coordinate very well with the solid blue sky in terms of colour balance. The tangle of flowers, leaves and basket material don’t seem visually strong enough to be used with a solid blue background. To my eye the background overpowers the subject matter rather than complimenting it. The pink flower colour doesn’t seem to have sufficient depth to work with the expansive blue background. An option with this composition may have been to come in much closer to the subject matter and lessen the amount of blue background.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

The second image of the purple tree blossoms also does not seem strong enough visually to be used with the solid blue background. The photograph is flat and lifeless. I can imagine this photograph working better if there were some nice, puffy white clouds in the top left hand corner, or if the flowers on the tree were white. Violet and purple hues seem to be challenged when trying to compete with bright blue.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 92.8 mm, efov 250.6 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-160

I like the visual impact of the third image with its leaves up against the bright blue sky. The back lighting helps to highlight the greens and yellows in the leaves. The simple pattern of angled leaves bleeding off the four sides of the image help to lessen the potential competition with the blue background. The absence of any clouds in the sky also helps to accent the shape, colour and texture of the green leaves. To my eye, a predominantly green/yellow subject coordinates well with a bright blue background. The strong corner exits also help to give the image good eye flow.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

Unfortunately there weren’t any other birds in the area other than some gulls with red beaks, legs and eye rings. Nevertheless I found this image instructive. The red highlights in this image work well against the bright blue background because the white body of the gull gives the composition some visual relief and provides some needed contrast with the bird’s red details. Even though the red details are small visual areas in the image, they command attention, making the blue background pull back visually. This tells me that strong colour density and contrast on the main subject are important factors when composing with a bright blue background.

Now let’s have a look at the impact of contrast and well-defined details using some very simple subject matter.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 70.7 mm, efov 190.9 mm, f/8, 1/640, ISO-160

This is about a simple a composition as one can photograph. If you’re like me, when viewing this image your eye immediately goes to the streaks and texture on the white painted surface, the nail heads, and ends up focusing on the one of the two rust spots. I think this demonstrates how a monochromatic background can help focus a viewer’s eye on small, yet important details in a photograph. When coupled with a strong angle, it can also help create an almost 3-D effect by accentuating the angle.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 79.1 mm, efov 213.6 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

The strong parallel lines and scrolled details on this roofline are so strong that one hardly even notices the strong, blue background. This indicates that a monochromatic background, even one as strong as bright blue, can be used to help accentuate the natural and dramatic visual flow of a photographic subject.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 85.9 mm, efov 231.9 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

The above image features a simple, but strong, repeating pattern. As we saw with the roofline image, the blue background in the  photograph above seems to almost drift away. It highlights and compliments the metallic shapes in the image rather than competing with them. This indicates that strong monochromatic backgrounds work well with subject matter than has clean, uncomplicated repeating patterns and lines.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-160

This photograph of a ship’s exhaust stack is another very simple composition. You’ll see two corner exits in this image. The first is in the bottom left corner where the white trim exits the frame. The second one is a strong, inferred corner exit created by the smokestack’s upward angle pointing directly to the top right corner.

These corner exits create visual relief for a viewer’s eye, allowing it to flow through the subject matter without getting disrupted. This also allows the reader’s eye to better notice the rust details on the main portion of the exhaust pipe. The bright blue background acts as a focusing agent that does not compete with the subject matter at all. This tells us that paying attention to the eye flow in a photograph is an important composition consideration when using a monochromatic background.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 17.1 mm, efov 46.2 mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-160

Our final image is another very simple composition. The bright blue background plays second fiddle in the photograph.  A viewer’s gaze is drawn to the three metal fasteners.

This strong visual direction is created by the combination of two bottom corner exits, two strong elliptical shapes formed by the hem on the dark blue material and the white piping, the contrast of the darker material wrapped around the white piping, and the three metal fasteners. The eye flow in this photo would have suffered if the monochromatic background would have been any colour other than bright blue, or if it had any kind of details in it.

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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6 thoughts on “Experimenting with Blue Backgrounds”

  1. Hi Tom,

    Belated blessed Hanukkah to you and your family!

    I dig your experiment and having come from an advertising background, I understand why production houses usually shoot products or talents for compositing against a blue or green screen — usually easier to drop out the subject for insertion onto a different backdrop.

    I especially like the studies in symmetry (metallic pipe corners against blue sky) and white roof elements against blue sky. The play on blue-on-blue (was that a chair mesh backing?) on the last image is interesting.


  2. You run good experiments and studies with your usual photographic precision.
    This latest one seems to produce blue backgrounds lacking sufficient contrast, with too creamy, soft blues devoid of punch, and in some instances has a jarring color clash when certain blues or other colors are in same photo.
    Of course the website goes through graphic cards, and then a monitor – both with display limitations and color-changing impact. Am viewing on retina-quality screen on WIN10 system. Perhaps the original have quite a different appearance.

  3. Looks like you had some fun while learning a lot! My favorite photo is number 7. It reminds me of a modern art poster! Then the gull is my second favorite. Keep the learning flowing!

    1. Hi Joni,
      Thanks for your comment! I think it is important for each of us to go out to experiment with our cameras. We’ve all captured photographs that didn’t work as well as we had hoped. Rather than just accept that something didn’t work, I think its instructive to examine some of these images to determine what it was about it was problematic.

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