Photography backgrounds make all the difference

Pay attention to what’s behind the subject of your subjects for photography with impact

Lately I’ve enjoyed finding photographic subjects that most of us don’t give a second thought and turn them into dramatic works of art. One such opportunity came with the old neon sign standing in front of the Gonzales Motel along Airline Highway in Gonzales, La.

Old signs photography by Andy Crawford Photography

This image of the Gonzales Motel sign near my home was nice, but lacked any real punch.

The neon tubes no longer work, but the sign is just a great old piece of roadside art. So I determined to capture it in a way that really shows it off. The problem was that the motel is now surrounded by power lines, convenience stores and strip malls. Making the image work without a bunch of clutter was going to be challenging.

The solution was to take a now-angle shot to isolate the sign with only the sky as the background. The sign isn’t very tall — maybe 12 feet high — so it was a bit more challenging than if the sign sat atop a tall pedestal. But, with traffic whizzing by between red lights and gawkers staring while waiting on green lights, I carefully framed the shot while pretty much laying on the ground.

When I left that morning, I thought the blue-bird sky would be the perfect background. And the results after processing were nice. Not bad. But the “wow” factor wasn’t there.

At lunch, I noticed the conditions had changed completely. Clouds had moved in, and the texture was awesome. Instead of solid, flat clouds, the sky was filled with striking texture. I couldn’t wait to drive the few miles back to the motel and let the clouds serve as my photography background.

Again, perspective was key to capturing an uncluttered view of the sign. I heightened the drama of the sky by choosing my widest lens — a Tokina 12-24 that is just an amazing (and affordable) piece of glass.

Neon sign photography by Andy Crawford Photography

Textured clouds added some much-needed drama to this image of the old Gonzales Motel sign.

With my camera set on manual and spot metering, I took a reading of the sign (not the sky). Then, for insurance, I bracketed and shot three frames.

A bit of processing provided a photo of the same sign from pretty much the same perspective, but one that was so much eye-catching. So next time you have a ho-hum image, think about the background. Clouds, brick walls, out-of-focus light, whatever. Usually, that part of a photo is just as important as the main subject.

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About Andy Crawford

Andy Crawford has been a photographer and writer for more than 20 years, with thousands of images and articles published in magazines and newspapers around the country. He now focuses on Louisiana photography, landscapes, HDR photography, urban prints and other fine art photography. He also is a portrait photographer.