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Removing Context

What is "removing context?" I'm pretty sure if you Googled it, nothing would come up. It's an "Eric term." Another word for this is compression - but I like my term... But what is it? It might be best to first illustrate what I'm talking about.

In this example, I was photographing a woman in a parking garage of a mall (I like parking garages...). I noticed an area where the light was good. If I find an area with good light, I'll then check to see if there's a background that works. Here's what I faced in this garage:

In this case, I selected a four foot wide wall as my background. I also incorporated the wall next to me in the foreground. I cropped to remove the context. In other words, you cannot tell what the background is or where she's located.

Here's another example of removing context. In this case, we were in the elevator landing of a hotel. Once again, I thought the light would be good. So, again, if I find good light, I then attempt to make a background work. Here, I liked the wallpaper.

By cropping in a way where we cannot tell where he is or what the background is exactly, I can create a beautiful portrait.

You wouldn't think that he was three feet from an elevator. Removing context adds to the artistry of the image and allows us to focus on the subject. He could be in a studio.

Here's another example of what I'm talking about. We were at the mall and I certainly didn't want it to look like we were doing portraits in the mall. We were in front of the Tiffany's store which had a well-lit storefront. I felt like the light would be good and then looked for a background. I saw a wreath in the distance that I thought I could use. Here's what the situation was:

It was a busy background with a lot going on. By removing context, I can make the background look interesting and non-distracting. Again, you cannot tell where she is or what the background is.

Here's another example of what I'm talking about. In this case, we were on a crowded balcony. The sun had just gone down and the sunset was providing soft, beautiful light.

Again, once I find light, I look to see if there's a background that works. In this case, we had a blank wall that would work just fine. By removing the context of where she was at, we created a cool portrait where the background isn't really identifiable.

Here's a final example where the background is truly awful. We were in the lighting section of a Home Depot. Both sides of the aisle were full of lights. I felt like there was enough light that it would be flattering for my subject. So, the challenge was how could I make this background look okay.

It's a challenge because if you can tell it's a Home Depot, the portrait likely doesn't work. By removing context, I am able to create a portrait in a place where a portrait shouldn't be created.

If you looked only at the second picture, you wouldn't be able to guess where she is or what that background is made of. This is the definition of "removing context."

So, let's talk about how to do this. Your lens is the key. If you are shooting with a 50mm lens, it's going to be much harder to remove context. The reason is because a wide angle lens prevents you from easily eliminating elements of the background.

First, let's illustrate the difference between 50mm and 200mm.

The field of view with a 50mm is WIDER than the field of view with a 200mm. We need a NARROWER field of view. This narrower field of view on the 200mm allows me to eliminate more of the background. I can select EXACTLY what I want to INCLUDE in the background and what I want to EXCLUDE. It would be impossible to do this with a wide angle lens - including the popular 50mm.

The point is to FIRST find good light and then look for a background that works. Using a telephoto lens (like a 200mm lens) will allow you to surgically remove elements of the background. This is removing context and, if you can do this, you'll have many more opportunities to create beautiful portraits in any situation. This will make you more versatile as a photographer.


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