We are often faced with the challenge of making a crappy hotel room, a parking lot, or even a children’s park look like the perfect backdrop. Our lens choice in these situations can make or break our final outcome, but which is the right choice?

We are going to discuss three challenging scenarios that have occurred during actual client shoots, and we’ll show you how to overcome them by simply having the right weapon in your arsenal.

1. The Backyard Wedding

I have, unfortunately, been in many scenarios where the cards just aren’t dealt in my favor. One particular situation involved a simple backyard wedding in a suburban neighborhood. The backyard had a pretty incredible view, but it was blocked by a huge iron fence. SOL, I stepped outside the house and walked up the street to find a plot of land (pictured below).

There is no amount of exaggeration that I could use to sell you on the idea that this was the most ideal place to take photos. I fully understand that, but hear me out. I knew I had one thing working in my favor: the grass. It would make for a great use of foreground and, at the right angle, look as though they were standing in a field of it; in actuality, you can see that it looks like much like Homer Simpson’s head, bald to a fault.

Lens of Choice: Canon 70-200mm
Reason: Compression

I stood below the wall to emulate what it would look like if I was crouching in the grass. The reason why I wanted compression here was to use the grass as an integral part of my composition, and with the 70-200mm we can make it seem as though that grass is vast and wide. Compressing your subjects against an aesthetically pleasing background or foreground is a great way to avoid seeing unnecessary elements in a scene. You can read more about lens compression here.

2. The Parking Lot Vineyard

You read that correctly. It isn’t often that you’ll find yourself in this scenario, but there is definitely a lesson to be learned from this particular background choice. While driving around and looking for a parking spot, I happened upon this quaint little vineyard, meant to be an ad for the hotel’s actual vineyard miles away. I immediately challenged myself to try and create something magical with this parking lot oddity:

The main obstacles I knew I would have to overcome had to do with the cars in the background and whether or not I would have any sunlight coming through that wouldn’t be blocked by the wall or trees at golden hour. I knew there were a couple of things I could do: 1). Use artificial lighting to help boost the sunlight in the scene (allowing me to blow out my background), and 2). use a lens that can make those cars look like nothing more than giant blobs.

Lens of Choice: Canon 70-200mm
Reason: Compression

I ran back about 50 feet, zoomed in to 142mm (don’t ask why I chose that number; it’s just what I was feeling at the moment), and fired with the AD200 just off to the left to give the couple a kick of warm rim light. The leaves fell into the foreground and I was able to use some of them to block the cars in the back.

Lens of Choice: Sigma Art 50mm
Reason: Shallow Depth of Field

After shooting that series with the 70-200mm, I wanted to see what the scene would look like at a wider aperture. I popped on my Sigma Art 50mm and dialed the aperture to f/1.4. This completely obliterated the cars in the background and it draws the viewer’s focus into the subjects. Wide open apertures are a lifesaver in situations when you are faced with distracting backgrounds or elements. Always keep that in mind.

3. The Side Alley

In some cases, you are forced to use a location due to convenience or a lack of other options. For instance, this couple had access to the helipad of the hotel; however, they really wanted their wedding pictures taken there and didn’t want to overuse the space. Forced to think quickly, I remembered a seeing a small alleyway that I knew I wasn’t going to use the next day.

Lens of Choice: Sigma Art 35mm & Sigma Art 50mm Primes
Reason: Shallow Depth of Field

Here is another wonderful example of how shallow depth of field can save the day. You can see from the BTS image on the left just how boring this location is. When it comes to salvaging something like this, I look to the composition to help guide my thought process, which is why I used the wall as a leading line to compliment the line of trees leading to the couple. Shooting tighter portraits with the 50mm allows us to stick to the same location and get a varied look and composition while still telling a consistent story. You can see that even on the same lens, shooting at the wrong angle reveals aspects we don’t necessarily want to show, like these sliding doors on the right:


And there you have it! We hope you venture off into the mediocre locations that the world has to offer and still find a way to create some magic! What lenses do you reach for when stuck in these types of predicaments? Let us know in the comments below!