As an exercise last weekend I photographed old-fashioned shop signs, of which there are a great many in Zurich's old city center.
I learned a lesson, so simple and obvious I'm almost embarrassed to state it: Pay attention to the background! (I mean really watch out for it)
Look at this sign. Can you see it? Me neither. I wasn't paying attention to the background.
Here I tried harder, but the background is still too busy.
OK, so here I was able to get the outline of the sign, but it's squeezed between buildings, and the bright sky has sucked out all of its color and detail. (Oops, I hadn't realized I was photographing in "macro" mode for these three photos, that doesn't help.)
Again, this sign is lost in the background.
Ah, now here's a better one of the same sign:
With the following photos I really thought I was being careful with the background, but I guess it wasn't enough.
For both of these I could have taken just a small step to the side to separate the subject from its background...
Hmm... Which one of these two is better?
OK, I'll admit, I tried my hand at editing. I guess it makes the eye focus on the main subject. I won't be doing it often though, it takes too much time. And it does feel like cheating to me.
I also realized it's OK to leave out part of your subject in order to get a good background. This photo came out pretty well for instance, even though I hesitated to leave out some of the beautiful wrought iron of the sign:
Trying to fit it all in meant having the house in the background, and that spoilt the shot.
Finally the problem I had with using the sky as a backdrop is I lost a lot of the color and detail of the subjects. Is there some setting I should use to get a good shot of details despite the brightness of the sky? I guess that would be the time to use fill-in flash. I tried but was too far from the signs.