Microsoft PowerPoint backgrounds can be problematic. You don’t
want them to distract, but no background at all can be harsh or boring. (Harsh
can be an appropriate look, but never settle for boring.) If your focus is a
picture, try using the picture itself as the background and the focus.

A sample PowerPoint file is provided to help illustrate this tip.

Slide focus

Now, let’s look at a simple example, shown in the image
below. Which slide do you prefer? The first one looks unfinished. If the
picture is the only important feature, you could try to enlarge it to fill the
entire slide, but that seldom works. For the second slide, I softened the
edges, offset the picture, and used a complementary color for the slide’s
background. It’s nice, in an ordinary and expected way. Most people will choose
the third slide. The background adds interest without distracting from the
picture’s purpose. (There’s no comparable feature in PowerPoint 2003.)

Creating the third slide is simple but has several steps:

  • Insert the picture. Crop
    it to remove any elements you don’t want to use.
  • Enlarge the picture to
    cover the entire slide.
  • Blur the background.
  • Lighten or darken the
  • Insert the same picture,
    retaining its original size (or somewhat original size) and position it.
  • Crop the picture if
  • Soften the edges around
    the focus picture. This step won’t always be necessary, but I’ve used it
    in this example slide.

Now, let’s create the third slide. (You’ll find the picture
file and the completed slide in the downloadable demo file.) First, insert the
picture you plan to work with by clicking the Insert tab, and then choosing
Picture in the Illustrations group. Or, you can copy the picture from the

Next, enlarge the picture to enclose the entire slide. Use
the corner handles to maintain the picture’s aspect ratio. (Otherwise, the
picture stretches oddly and the distortion is obvious and ugly.) Keep extending
the corners until the slide is covered. Use the rulers above and to the left to
keep your bearings.

This step is probably the most difficult, but it’s also the
most forgiving. You’ll lose elements along the edges, but by deciding how to
position the enlarged picture, you decide what elements you lose. In this case,
the background is mostly peanuts, so it doesn’t matter. The only thing I truly
want to lose is that sliver of light along the picture’s right border.

Once you enlarge and position the picture, blur it as

  • Select the picture.
  • Click the contextual
    Format tab.
  • In the Adjust group, click
    Artistic Effects.
  • Click Blur. There are many
    to choose from, but for backgrounds, Blur is usually a good choice.

With the picture still selected, lighten or darken the
background. Leaving the background the same color is usually too distracting.
To choose one of these options, click Corrections (on the Format tab) and
choose the second thumbnail in the first line of the Brightness And Contrast

Insert the same picture or copy it from the Clipboard or a
holding slide. Resize it as necessary and crop as necessary. There’s a small
sliver of light along the right border that I cropped as follows:

  • Select the picture and
    then click the contextual Format tab.
  • In the Size group, click
  • Use the cropping handles
    to move the borders accordingly. In this case, I moved the handle on the
    right border to the left to eliminate that gray light.
  • Click Crop a second time
    to commit the change.

After cropping the picture, position it. You can even resize
it a bit, if necessary. Be sure to use the corner handles to retain the aspect
ratio. You can use the left pane to review your changes. Press [Ctrl]+Z to undo
a change you don’t want to keep.

You’re almost done. You have one more step – to soften the
edges of the focus picture as follows:

  • With the focus picture
    (not the background picture) selected, click the contextual Format tab.
  • In the Picture Styles
    group, click Picture Effects.
  • Choose Soft Edges.
  • Choose a setting – I chose
    25 points.
  • Save the presentation and
    then view the slide.

If you examine the last figure closely, you’ll notice that
it isn’t the same as the third slide in the first picture. Nor is it even the
same as the picture just before. After viewing the slide, I made a few more
small adjustments. I enlarged the background picture a bit by moving the
chickadee’s blurred head off the slide. I adjusted the size and the position of
the focus picture until I was satisfied. I wanted you to see how forgiving this
technique is.

Bottom line

Combining artistic effects and color corrections, you have
more possibilities than you can imagine. There’s no right or wrong. Experiment
and share your results with others for a consensus if you’re unsure which effect
is the most pleasing and effective.