Flatter your portrait subject with the perfect background, even if you don’t have professional backdrops or lighting. A little exposure and composition know-how can get you a long way toward a beautiful portrait background.
Written by Valerie Robinson
This tutorial is a grab-bag of helpful ideas for photographers of any level. I’ve written them with the idea that once you master them all, you will have a bag of tricks at your disposal. Pull out one or combine several, and you’ll be able to quickly adapt to all kinds of lighting and subject situations and walk away with a wonderful portrait. Many of the techniques, however, work best with just one or two subjects. As a group becomes larger, you’ll find your available options becoming fewer. Such is the life of a portrait photographer!
Step 1: Crop Out Distractions
Have you ever looked around you and been disappointed about your subject’s location? Maybe it’s a messy home interior or an unremarkable backyard. A location might appear boring at first, but you can improve it by thinking about what your camera “sees”. Look through your viewfinder and pay attention to what’s visible in the background. Get down low or up high. Get in close and to the side. Notice the effect of your movement on what you see in the viewfinder.
One of the most important things you can do to get rid of background distractions is to get in closer to your subject. This is thought of as “in-camera cropping”.
In the two images below, check out how the image was transformed when I got in close and cropped out the parent. All possible disractions were removed and the complete focus of the image was on the baby. One other important thing that happened is that the parent’s solid dark purple sweater looks almost like a professional backdrop.
Lighting: Indirect window light. It is a north-facing window, but that’s not as important as the fact that it was just not the direction the sun was shining directly in.
Lens: 85mm fixed lens at aperture 1.8. Shutter speed doesn’t really matter. Just has to be fast enough to avoid camera shake.
Step 2: Look Down or Up
In almost every situation, if you get above your subject and look down, you’ll likely find a decent – or even great – background. At the very least you’ll avoid power lines, street signs, or any other distractions. I’m not very tall, so sometimes this means that I need to have my subject get on the ground, kneel, crouch, or otherwise. Or, I’ve been known to climb trees or stand on walls, chairs, park benches, etc. Taking pictures of a child or baby? You’re all set! One other approach is to look up and use tree leaves or the sky for your background.
This isn’t a background tip, but If you’re trying to slim someone, looking down at them and having them extend their chin slightly can be quite effective.
Step 3: Blur, Baby
This step is critical, but your options change depending on the lens you’re using in two ways: aperture and focal length. Blur increases with the length of the lens and the size of your lens opening. Regardless of your lens, however, moving in close to your subject and positioning them further from the background will increase the amount of blurring you can get. Open up your lens and shoot with the aperture as wide as you can. If you’ve got just one subject, you can shoot at f1.8 or f2. Blurring the background as much as you can will allow you to make the ground, a wall, anything far away from your subject, turn into a pleasant background.
Step 4: Exposure Trickery
I remember being amazed when I first learned that you can make a background go completely black or white just by how you make your exposure. What a cool trick! By taking advantage of bright skies or dark shadows, you can be anywhere and no one would ever know that you didn’t use a professional backdrop. This trick can be a tutorial or even book of its own, but I’m going to keep it simple: your camera can only record a limited range of light. So start with the light falling on your subject. Now think about the comparative amount of light on your background. If there’s a big difference, either much more or much less light, what your camera records will either be solid black or solid white.
If your background is a shadow area, for example, there won’t be enough light reflected back into the camera to register anything on your sensor. If your background is a bright, even blue, sky that’s much brigher than your subject, so much light will get into your sensor, it’ll just record all white. I should mention that getting a white background is different from what’s called “blowing” out your highlights, which is considered a technical error that occurs when your camera’s sensor gets too much light and doesn’t get anything at all in a range of pixels. You want the sensor to record white, not nothing, if that makes sense.
Just remember to measure the exposure of your subject, not the background, and you’ll be on your way!
Step 5: Make the Most of Available Backdrops
You can probably see how this trick builds upon the previous one. Say you don’t have the large range in exposure between your subject and background that Step 4 requires. You can cheat a bit by using available items that are dark or light as backdrops. These will either absorb light, keeping it from reflecting through your lens, or add extra light. You’re still relying on the fact that your camera can only sense a limited exposure range and you can easily still get the same effect as in Step 4.
Look around you for solid dark or light walls. Create a backdrop by asking a client if they have a light-colored solid sheet or a black velvet dress (velvet is ideal because it absorbs even more light than regular black). Even just a dark or light t-shirt can be used to great effect.
Step 6: Subject-to-Background Distance
It’s often a great idea to increase the distance between your subject and your background. Benefits include increasing blur (Step 3) and increasing the likelihood that the background will go to white or black [increased difference between the amount of light on your subject compared to the amount of light on your background (Step 4 and 5)]. You’ll also add depth to your image, which makes for a more interesting composition.
Step 7: Mottled or Blurred Light
Bright sunlit patches or blurred lights can make for a very pleasing background. Mottled sunlight can spell disaster when it falls on your subject’s face or even body if you’re not using it intentionally. But if you’re careful, and you’re outside on a sunny day, use the light shining through trees to your advantage in the background.
Step 8: Feed the Flare
When I was in photo school, I was taught that lens flare was the result of bad compositional technique, and I’m sure there are people who still hate it any time they see it in an image. However, especially in wedding and engagement portraiture, lens flare is used intentionally to add interest to what might otherwise be a boring background or to obscure a distracting one. The best part is that your cheaper lenses work better since the expensive ones have been engineered to reduce the likelihood of flare.
1. Position the sun so it’s in the frame (but don’t look at the sun because I don’t want to be sued after someone read this and went blind!)
2. Use a cheap lens.
3. Use a smaller aperture to get a more star-like shape to the flare.
Step 9: Complement the Subject’s Eye Color
Finally, find colors that will flatter your subject, usually by bringing out their eyes. Bark groundcover or even dirt or sand can make a person with brown eyes look vibrant. Green leaves or plants blurred out or a blue sky can highlight blue and green eyes.
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