How to Better Use Backgrounds in Portrait Photography (Guest Post)

A portrait model standing in front of a blue background.
Canon 40D, Tamron 18-250mm lens, Lexar Professional UDMA 300x 8GB CF card, ISO 1000, 100mm, f4.5 at 1/50 sec.

When capturing photos of people, most budding photographers tend to concentrate on the subject and forget to consider the background. Yet, a good backdrop can be the difference between a good and a great portrait. How many times have you seen a really nice picture of someone except that there is a light pole in the background, or a cute picture of a child with a big garbage can right behind him or her? These backgrounds distract the viewer from the subject, whereas a good background can actually enhance the subject. Many professional photographers purchase muslin backgrounds for their portraits. Although this works well in a studio environment, I prefer to go out and find interesting backgrounds for my subjects. Examining your local surroundings with a photographic eye will allow you to discover numerous unique backdrops where you would least expect it. Even something as simple as a garage door can make an interesting background.

The first photo featured on this page is is my son modeling in front of a garage door in a small beach town in California. We were walking through a neighborhood and noticed the patterns on the door, where ivy had been removed from the painted surface. This shot got us excited and as we continued our walk we were on the lookout for other interesting backgrounds. We discovered a whole world of unique backdrops from restaurant walls and brightly colored doors to blossoming gardens.  With the attributes of each enhancing the mood conveyed in the photos.

A good photographer will find something intriguing in a place where the average person might see nothing.  The way that I see the world around me has changed since delving into the world of photography. I am constantly asking myself “What would this look like in a photo?”

A woman cheering for victory in an empty stadium with red seats.
Canon 40D, Tamron 18-250mm lens, Lexar Professional UDMA 300x 8GB CF card, ISO 100, 59mm, f5 at 1/500.

While visiting Chicago, Illinois, with my daughter for a photography workshop, we came across an empty concert hall. I saw endless rows of bright red seats, which would provide an interesting background for a portrait. I asked my daughter to sit in a particular seat (which gave me the best perspective and placement of my subject), and then asked her to pretend that there was a great concert happening in front of her. I love her reaction, but the location of the shot is what makes the photo work.Make sure to find a background that has colours and patterns that will complement the subject. It is generally not a good idea to photograph a subject who is wearing a green outfit in an open green field since your subject will blend into the background (unless you are purposely trying to create this effect).

Woman standing in front of a blue background and a red background in Brazil.
Shot with a Canon 40D, Tamron 18-250mm lens, Lexar Professional UDMA 300x 8GB CF card, ISO 250, 59mm, f5 at 1/1000 sec.

While traveling in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, I met a woman wearing a red and white outfit and photographed her next to a food shack on the beach. I chose this background because I felt that the contrast of the blue wall would accent her outfit and make her stand out. As you can see, this picture would not have been as effective if I had shot her in front of a red wall.

It is important that the background works visually in harmony with the subject, keeping in mind the complementing colours and also the context of the photo. As a photographer, you need to make sure that the subject and background work together to tell your story. Your subject and your background need to make sense to the viewer. I have seen numerous images with a subject in swimmers posing in a city or some other place where people usually do not usually hang out in their beach ware! When you are shooting pictures of your subject, you should decide whether the background will complement the subject or be a distraction. If you feel that the background will help show the environment and add something interesting to your photo, you should set your aperture to f8 or f16 so that both your subject and your background are equally in focus.

Using a blurry background separates this model from the green bushes in the background.
Shot with a Canon 40D, Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS lens, Lexar Professional UDMA 300x 16GB CF card, ISO 400, 150mm, f3.2 at 1/400 sec.

If your background is distracting or unattractive, you should set your camera to the highest aperture to blur the background and bring the focus solely on your subject.

If you are tired of photographing your subjects in the same areas day after day, I challenge you to go out and look for interesting backgrounds. You never know where you will find your next favorite spot.

Tips for selecting the best backgrounds

1. Think outside the studio – Go outside and explore, exteriors of buildings and natural settings can make unique and interesting backdrops for portrait photography.

2. Stay alert – Pay attention to your surroundings in everyday life. You never know where you will find an unusual or striking background, you may come across the most compelling background in the most unlikely place.

3. Location, location, location – Make sure the background you choose is right for your photo and the story you are trying to tell. The location should complement all the elements of your photo to best enhance the overall impact of the image.

4. Strive for visual harmony – Make sure that the colours, patterns and textures you choose complement your subject and the mood of the photo for the best results.

If you enjoy these portrait photography tips from Jeff, you'll probably want to like his facebook page to keep up with him.  You should also head over to his blog and take a look at his portfolio on his website.

3 thoughts on “How to Better Use Backgrounds in Portrait Photography (Guest Post)”

  1. Hands down, Apple’s app store wins by a mile. It’s a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially in the realm of games, but I’m not sure I’d want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is a much better choice in that case.

  2. As I am professional photographer, I like to read regular about posting subject photography. I am daily learning about photo capture, and best way to make look nice my photo.

    Thank you very much for your nice article.

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