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Camera FAQ #15: How Do I Photograph Small Animals Against a Busy but Beautiful Background?

When photographing small animals such as a young squirrel, a good idea is to take a shot that emphasizes its small size and cuteness. This article introduces tips on how to capture such subjects against a busy but beautiful background, such as this backdrop of cherry blossoms. You can try using this as a technique to make the most of the pale coloured background. (Reported by: Yukihiro Fukuda)

EOS 60D/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM + Extender EF 1.4xIII/ FL: 192mm (312mm equivalent)/ f/6.3/ 1/250 sec/ ISO: 1250/ WB: Daylight
I focused on young squirrels that had just left the nest. Using a telephoto lens, I placed the pink colour of the cherry blossoms in the background to achieve a good balance with the greenery of the tree, and reproduced the soft atmosphere of spring.


STEP 1: Change the angle to check for objects to incorporate into the background

The scene was of a tree growing on a slope, where the young squirrels climbed up the lower section of the tree and were playing on a branch. There was high, cloudy weather, with the white sky entering the background when shooting at a normal angle. The cherry blossoms were not in the background when I was in a squatting position. However, I just managed to fit the cherry blossoms in the background when I stood up on tiptoes, so it’s a good idea to always check the situation first.


STEP 2: Select a shooting position that allows you to fit your chosen background into the composition

Young squirrels move quickly, so I had to determine the shooting position in an instant. When I shot at eye level, the background was white. However, I found that I could fit the cherry blossoms in the background when I increased the angle. When using a telephoto lens, even a slight change in angle greatly changes how the background looks, as in this case.

Check out Camera FAQ #7  for more about camera position and camera angle.


STEP 3: Use a telephoto lens to include more of the small animals’ surroundings

I was standing far enough away from the squirrels that I could consider using a 500mm telephoto lens. However, I wanted to include the squirrels’ surroundings and landscape elements for my shot. Therefore, I used a slightly shorter focal length—312mm. (For more about the effects of different telephoto ends, check out Lens FAQ #7 ). I used the perspective compression effect  to defocus the pink colour of the cherry blossoms in the background, and I placed hanging leaves in the frame to add colour to the product.


STEP 4: Select an f-number that achieves moderate blurring in the background

While the young squirrels are the main focus  of this shot, I thought about adding other subjects to make the image more interesting. When aiming for a perspective compression effect with a telephoto lens, it is important not to stop down the aperture too far, otherwise the branches and leaves in the background start to become more clearly visible, causing the image as a whole to become too complicated. Here, I used f/6.3.


TIP: The way the background is taken determines how good the shot is

The point you need to pay most attention to is how to capture the background. How much attention you pay to this point will significantly impact how good your shot will turn out. Below is an example of an unsuccessful shot, which resulted from the angle being too low. The squirrels came to the location that I anticipated, but I was too late for the shot. In the main shot above, I increased the angle for the shot so that the cherry blossoms filled the background at once. Try using manual exposure  when shooting in order to avoid changes in the exposure due to the background.

EOS 60D/ FL: 192mm(312mm equivalent)/ f/6.3/ 1/250 sec/ ISO 1250
Without the cherry blossoms, the background becomes lighter and whiter, which significantly changes the ambience of the final image. Now that you’ve seen how the background can affect an image, why not try putting some thought into the background of your next shot and seeing the results for yourself?


EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

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Yukihiro Fukuda


Born in 1965 in Tokyo. Fukuda's visit to Hokkaido in search of the Japanese cranes he loved led him to become an animal photographer. After spending 10 years on wildlife coverage in Hokkaido, Fukuda expanded his scope to other countries and underwater photography. Wildlife, underwater, and landscape photography now form the three pillars of his current activities.


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