The visible background in a photograph has a significant influence on our ability to recognize and distinguish the main object from its surrounding. In addition the choice of background effects the interpretation of the image as a whole.

Scroll down for a brief summary on the significance of the visible background in (object-) photography.  

Click on the photographs for more information on the influence of the respective background. 

The Significance of the Visible Background in (Object -) Photography

by Michelle Aimeé, 2023

Under no circumstances can an object, subject, or scene be photographed entirely detached from its context. Even a plain white background will impose immediate context – namely that of a white background. A photograph with no immediate context is only possible if the non-main-subject or subjects are physically (or digitally) cropped out of the photograph. In all other cases, the main subject is submerged in its setting.

The setting can be identified as the visible spatial environment in which the main object is placed and appears through the chosen composition. In relation to the placement of the main object, the spatial description of the setting can be divided into foreground, middle ground, and background. The transitions between individual layers are a matter of definition and are often defined in relation to the placement of the main object. The amount of visual cues the setting provides depends on the number of layers and elements that make up the setting. The appearance of the setting is influenced by the photographer’s decisions regarding the perspective on the scene, the choice of background, and lighting. If circumstances permit, this allows conscious control over the amount of information offered in the object’s surroundings. Further, the setting can provide additional information on the context and circumstances under which the object was photographed, and can even offer points of references in regard of the main subject’s size.

A homogeneous background that fills the entire frame of the photo denies the viewer any visual cues on the location of the shot. The fewer visual elements are visible in the object’s surroundings, the more attention is given to the visible elements. Therefore, if the background consists of a single, neutral surface, the viewer’s undivided attention is directed to the central object. Particularly, monochromatic backgrounds with a high contrast in color or luminance to the main object help the viewer distinguish the object effortlessly from the background. This clear separation between the object and the background allows the viewer to recognize the object more easily. The texture and color of the background can not only reduce or enhance the visibility of the object’s shape but also provide the potential to give information about the shooting context. These additional pieces of information can contextualize the photography, provided the viewer can read and understand them.

In veterinary medicine, fresh specimens are predominantly photographed in the operating room, the anatomy preparation room, or in pathology. In these places, a nearby neutral background is often chosen to photograph the object. Popular choices include blue or green surgical drapes, white cutting boards, or stainless steel tables. Creative solutions such as newspaper, cleaning cloths, or artificial turf are also not uncommon. In cases of unclean work, folds, stains, or parts of the environment may be visible in the frame. Samples that can be transported to other locations such as a photo studio, office, museum, or archive for photography are in a different environment, and photography is subject to different conditions. By changing locations, the visual clues to the «original» setting also change.

The viewer associates the visible objects and accessories in the photograph with the visual information in the setting. Assuming prior knowledge and cognitive ability, the viewer can draw conclusions about the location and circumstances of the object’s capture. Especially when elements of the environment are clearly recognizable, the interpreter will attempt to understand the connection between the object and the setting and judge whether the scene is contextually coherent, i.e., whether it contains elements that tend to occur simultaneously in the environment and are known to the viewer in this context (Bar, 2004).
Whether an object-setting combination is recognized as a natural event or one with symbolic meaning that needs to be deciphered depends on whether the photographer and viewer belong to the same (socio-)culture (Worth & Gross, 1974).
In photographs where both the environment and a neutral background are visible, the photographer’s attempt to separate the object from its surroundings using an inserted neutral background is evident, which may have failed due to a too small background or the photographer’s oversight.

In summary, it can be said that the type of background has a crucial influence on the visibility and colors of objects placed in front of it. The background is also a crucial factor for interpreting visual information and understanding a photograph in terms of content, circumstance, and context. Additionally, based on the choice of background and composition, the viewer will inevitably draw conclusions on the skill and care of the photographer—provided the viewer has the required sensitivity and knowledge to do so.

This text is a summary of an unpublished research paper based on visual experiments, qualitative interviews, and image reviews, written in the context of my master’s in Visual Communications and Iconic Research at the Basel School of Design in 2018.