How to Create Portraits that Captivate and Intrigue - Digital Photography School

How to Create Portraits that Captivate and Intrigue

Yesterday as I wrote about an old professional photographer friend taught me about using a zoom lens as a compositional tool I was reminded of another influence that he had upon me – that of always considering the background and surrounds of your portrait subject.

Image by Blazej Mrozinski

I remember looking through one of his portfolios one afternoon and marveling at the way he was able to create shots that were just so…. interesting.

He was the type of photographer who produced portrait images that you just couldn’t glance at – you were captivated by them, really drawn into the image.

I remember trying to pick his brain as to how he did it and after a few moment of thinking he replied:

“I spend more time thinking about the background in my shots than thinking about the main subject.”

With that in mind I worked back through some of the images in his portrait portfolio again and realised that he was right – image after image featured subjects surrounded by well considered and interesting backgrounds.

Image by orangeacid

  • The backgrounds gave context to and told the stories of the subject.
  • They didn’t overwhelm or distract from the subject – but gave meaning to it and brought them alive.
  • Sometimes the surrounds of the person communicated who they were and sometimes they left you intrigued – wanting to know more

Image by an untrained eye

I came away from that experience challenge to consider the backgrounds and surrounds of the people I photographed and found myself thinking less about how to pose people but thinking more about what scene to put them into.

Image by mharvey.nyc

PS: I’m not suggesting this is the only or even best way to take portraits. There’s certainly a place for minimalistic portraits too which isolate the subject – but I think many photographers could learn a lot from considering their backgrounds more.

Related Reading

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • Marvin Rivera

    A professional creates his/her photos and displays only the best work. Does it for money so quality is the upmost priority over quantity.

    an Amateur snaps pretty photos.

    and advanced amateur does the same as a professional but he/she does not earn any or enough income from it to call it a profession. Shoots mostly for personal pleasure.

    To me , Photography is more than just backgrounds and foregrounds and light. Its composition and Art. Its telling a story that its pleasent to the eyes.

    Thats just my opinion ofcourse.

    I do like the good points and ideas I always find around here and I understand that it’s the sum of all of them that makes a great photograph.

    Marvin

  • John Finster

    Nice article – a new perspective. This gives me a whole new way of looking at candid portrait photography, too – or taking pictures of strangers without really taking pictures of them, paparazzi-style.

  • Ashley

    I’m kind of confused on photo #3 as I just ran into “the effect” today on photofunia.com. I was able to “duplicate” the same photo. I googled “New York Public Library Mural”. Once I found the right photo, I saved it. Uploaded it to photofunia.com. Cropped to size and came out with the exact same shot. I just found it odd…

  • Ashley

    After rereading my previous comment, I just have to say… I’m not jumping to conclusions or accussing any one of anything. For all I know it was an original photo and it was allowed to be used as a “photo fun” tool. I have no idea. My previous comment sounded like I was accusing someone of something. I’m not at all. I literally just found it odd. I think it’s a beautiful photo and very humurous at the same time.

  • Geoff Pickering

    thanks for this article, it has made me think a lot about backgrounds as a way of adding interest & in fact telling the story about the person in the portrait, obviously also for quite a few other people too judging by the amount of comments, for me No 2 is the one with the “wow” factor the colours of her hair & jacket are mirrored in the blurred background, even the colour of the falling leaves compliment her skin & hair, the normal rule is to have the subject looking direct at the viewer but she is looking at the direction of the leaves & this also helps to add a bit of mystery (probably the wrong word) to the image & making it interesting to the viewer..I think i would agree with the comment that No3 is not in the usual sense a portrait, but its a very interesting “fun” Image, yes the background does take first place at least at first, but when you notice the girl, she is in the only position that makes this a real fun image, in fact the painting is interacting with the girl, so its a good example of thinking about your background to either enhance &/or make or break the photo, so thanks again for a very interesting & useful article

  • Norma Troiano

    Thank you for the article and the good advice. Your articles are always clear and concise.

  • ksw

    This article is perfectly-suited to what I think separates snapshots from portraiture — the conceptualization of a shot. Thank you for posting this. I enjoyed the read – and I appreciate these images, these perspectives, the words of assistance to improve my work.

  • http://www.cat3media.com Patrick

    I’ve been thinking about this alot as it relates to street/environmental portraiture. I’ll be honest – for me, most of the background consideration comes into play in the edit phase. During shooting, things are just happening too fast, and I’m looking for interesting subjects. Now, once I see an interesting subject, I’ll try to shoot as many angles, apertures, focal lengths, etc, so that I’ll have some choices in post-production.

    For example: http://www.behance.net/gallery/Halloween-in-Coconut-Grove/784594

  • http://www.larissaphotography.com St Louis Wedding Photographer

    I think this is a style thing for photographers. I can name at least 2 professional wedding and portrait photographers that shoot a LOT of their shots like this. It’s a fun way to shoot, but sometimes all people are wanting with a portrait is a picture that doesn’t make them look overweight =)

  • http://www.frenchquartercondotrends.com Eric Bouler

    Some great tips and things to try this week. Have you done one with people and mirrors. This has always grabbed my attention.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8467120@N08/ Matt

    Thanks very much for including my photograph of Gabriella (#4) with your piece, and thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

    I just thought I might add that thinking about your subject in relation to his or her environment can be a great way to get to know someone better as a person, which is really what a lot of great portrait photography is about. In my case, I’d always had a friendly “hi, how are you?” type relationship with Gabriella, the woman who runs my neighborhood laundromat, but I only really started to get a feel for her as a real person while working with her on this photograph. I hope that comes through a little bit.

    Furthermore, as nervous as I was to even ask Gabriella if she’d sit for me, the whole session wound up being much easier than I had thought it would be. I’d encourage anyone who has hesitated to ask a stranger to sit for a photograph to just go for it– let photography be the method that makes you bold in your exploration of the world!

  • http://timwilsonart.squarespace.com Tim Wilson

    I’m a Midwesterner with the typical Midwestern reluctance to intrude on others. Since rediscovering photography I’ve gotten more interested in this type of portraiture, and I’ve been forcing myself to ask strangers if I can take their picture. It’s not easy, but I’m finding that most people are more than willing to be photographed. The good news is that it’s getting easier, and I’m seeing good results.

  • http://www.matthewblasseyphotography.com matt blassey

    great eye opening article on thinking about the concept behind the photograph

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/10050074@N05/ Karthik

    Love all the photographs…but love most #3 because of colors and composition.But as usual there is no one rule for portraits.If you want to tell a story with the person then think twice about the background.
    But if you want to tell about only the subject, then ignore the background.Happy shooting :-)

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    Sometimes no background is best like with this model lit with a large softbox at 90 degrees and a reflector opposite. Black backdrop at quite a distance behind

    http://tinyurl.com/34wdcxt

    Cheers, Erik

  • http://syawarfield.com Sya

    This just gave me a completely new perspective on an upcoming project!

  • http://StudioGalvan.com Carlos Galvan

    Of all the environmental portrait’s on this page, I like Sasha’s the best. There’s not doubt about the purpose of the image and it’s intriguing. There’s action, good detail on the Salmon and a nice (at least not negative) expression on the cook.

  • http://500px.com/kumar_varun Kumar Varun

    agreed.. backgroud is very very important.
    I liked the line “I spend more time thinking about the background in my shots than thinking about the main subject.”
    http://500px.com/photo/6768770
    http://500px.com/photo/6768776
    http://500px.com/photo/7078834

  • http://www.appleledgephotography.com Robert Rosen

    I think this is a great article. I do street portrature and a lot of the people are homeless. I think a lot of the shots http://www.flickr.com/photos/appleledge/sets/72157626304994674/
    would have been better had I portrayed more or the surroundings.

  • http://www.guigphotography.com/# Guigphotography

    Love these portraits. I disagree that #3 isn’t a portrait because you can’t see the face. I don’t think you necessarily have to see a face for it to be a portrait. And besides, you can’t fully see any of the faces in the background which may be why the subject was shot this way.
    I like the point about a background not being overwhelming and think that’s important (took me a while to get a grip on that)! And I love how backgrounds can change can change the dynamics and shape of a shot.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8150122066/in/photostream

  • http://zain.zenfolio.com Zain Abdullah

    A portrait of a hawker selling chendol (Malaysian sweet delicacy)
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/people/e22f92f19

  • Abigail

    I absolutely love picture #2!!!

  • justin donie

    This is the sort of article I personally come to this newsletter hoping to see each week. Approaches to broaden and deepen our vision, not just our technique. Awesome! Thanks!

  • Colin Burt

    Great images. But are they portraits with an interesting background or interesting places with a person in the frame ? Certainly works well with the candid ( or carefully posed to look candid ) shots in the art gallery and the dry cleaners shop. A good counter for the judge who says ” Ah yes – but what is the main subject ‘ Grr…..

  • http://www.teriroy.com Teri

    Thanks for the article, gives me much to think about in my portraits….

  • James

    #3: The background IS the subject. The (excellent) girl is the foreground. Love this photo.

  • R.T. Hale

    About photo #3. Very nice but, I think the person in a portrait should be recognizable.

  • Kashan Sid

    Loved the article, some time happen with with me thinking to set the background i loose some focus on the subject

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    agree agree… in summary background – subject related.. otherwise fill in the frame.

Some older comments

  • R.T. Hale

    December 23, 2012 06:43 am

    About photo #3. Very nice but, I think the person in a portrait should be recognizable.

  • James

    December 19, 2012 03:51 pm

    #3: The background IS the subject. The (excellent) girl is the foreground. Love this photo.

  • Teri

    December 14, 2012 01:51 am

    Thanks for the article, gives me much to think about in my portraits....

  • Colin Burt

    December 13, 2012 12:14 pm

    Great images. But are they portraits with an interesting background or interesting places with a person in the frame ? Certainly works well with the candid ( or carefully posed to look candid ) shots in the art gallery and the dry cleaners shop. A good counter for the judge who says " Ah yes - but what is the main subject ' Grr.....

  • justin donie

    December 13, 2012 11:50 am

    This is the sort of article I personally come to this newsletter hoping to see each week. Approaches to broaden and deepen our vision, not just our technique. Awesome! Thanks!

  • Abigail

    December 12, 2012 02:04 am

    I absolutely love picture #2!!!

  • Zain Abdullah

    December 11, 2012 06:58 pm

    A portrait of a hawker selling chendol (Malaysian sweet delicacy)
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/people/e22f92f19

  • Guigphotography

    December 10, 2012 06:35 am

    Love these portraits. I disagree that #3 isn't a portrait because you can't see the face. I don't think you necessarily have to see a face for it to be a portrait. And besides, you can't fully see any of the faces in the background which may be why the subject was shot this way.
    I like the point about a background not being overwhelming and think that's important (took me a while to get a grip on that)! And I love how backgrounds can change can change the dynamics and shape of a shot.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8150122066/in/photostream

  • Robert Rosen

    December 9, 2012 01:06 am

    I think this is a great article. I do street portrature and a lot of the people are homeless. I think a lot of the shots http://www.flickr.com/photos/appleledge/sets/72157626304994674/
    would have been better had I portrayed more or the surroundings.

  • Kumar Varun

    May 2, 2012 08:37 pm

    agreed.. backgroud is very very important.
    I liked the line “I spend more time thinking about the background in my shots than thinking about the main subject.”
    http://500px.com/photo/6768770
    http://500px.com/photo/6768776
    http://500px.com/photo/7078834

  • Carlos Galvan

    February 8, 2011 01:17 am

    Of all the environmental portrait's on this page, I like Sasha's the best. There's not doubt about the purpose of the image and it's intriguing. There's action, good detail on the Salmon and a nice (at least not negative) expression on the cook.

  • Sya

    January 19, 2011 11:20 am

    This just gave me a completely new perspective on an upcoming project!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    November 22, 2010 01:41 pm

    Sometimes no background is best like with this model lit with a large softbox at 90 degrees and a reflector opposite. Black backdrop at quite a distance behind

    http://tinyurl.com/34wdcxt

    Cheers, Erik

  • Karthik

    November 20, 2010 02:08 pm

    Love all the photographs...but love most #3 because of colors and composition.But as usual there is no one rule for portraits.If you want to tell a story with the person then think twice about the background.
    But if you want to tell about only the subject, then ignore the background.Happy shooting :-)

  • matt blassey

    November 18, 2010 03:25 am

    great eye opening article on thinking about the concept behind the photograph

  • Tim Wilson

    November 16, 2010 02:27 pm

    I'm a Midwesterner with the typical Midwestern reluctance to intrude on others. Since rediscovering photography I've gotten more interested in this type of portraiture, and I've been forcing myself to ask strangers if I can take their picture. It's not easy, but I'm finding that most people are more than willing to be photographed. The good news is that it's getting easier, and I'm seeing good results.

  • Matt

    November 16, 2010 03:08 am

    Thanks very much for including my photograph of Gabriella (#4) with your piece, and thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

    I just thought I might add that thinking about your subject in relation to his or her environment can be a great way to get to know someone better as a person, which is really what a lot of great portrait photography is about. In my case, I'd always had a friendly "hi, how are you?" type relationship with Gabriella, the woman who runs my neighborhood laundromat, but I only really started to get a feel for her as a real person while working with her on this photograph. I hope that comes through a little bit.

    Furthermore, as nervous as I was to even ask Gabriella if she'd sit for me, the whole session wound up being much easier than I had thought it would be. I'd encourage anyone who has hesitated to ask a stranger to sit for a photograph to just go for it-- let photography be the method that makes you bold in your exploration of the world!

  • Eric Bouler

    November 15, 2010 04:22 am

    Some great tips and things to try this week. Have you done one with people and mirrors. This has always grabbed my attention.

  • St Louis Wedding Photographer

    November 13, 2010 12:58 pm

    I think this is a style thing for photographers. I can name at least 2 professional wedding and portrait photographers that shoot a LOT of their shots like this. It's a fun way to shoot, but sometimes all people are wanting with a portrait is a picture that doesn't make them look overweight =)

  • Patrick

    November 13, 2010 08:20 am

    I've been thinking about this alot as it relates to street/environmental portraiture. I'll be honest - for me, most of the background consideration comes into play in the edit phase. During shooting, things are just happening too fast, and I'm looking for interesting subjects. Now, once I see an interesting subject, I'll try to shoot as many angles, apertures, focal lengths, etc, so that I'll have some choices in post-production.

    For example: http://www.behance.net/gallery/Halloween-in-Coconut-Grove/784594

  • ksw

    November 13, 2010 12:58 am

    This article is perfectly-suited to what I think separates snapshots from portraiture -- the conceptualization of a shot. Thank you for posting this. I enjoyed the read - and I appreciate these images, these perspectives, the words of assistance to improve my work.

  • Norma Troiano

    November 12, 2010 10:07 pm

    Thank you for the article and the good advice. Your articles are always clear and concise.

  • Geoff Pickering

    November 12, 2010 06:51 pm

    thanks for this article, it has made me think a lot about backgrounds as a way of adding interest & in fact telling the story about the person in the portrait, obviously also for quite a few other people too judging by the amount of comments, for me No 2 is the one with the "wow" factor the colours of her hair & jacket are mirrored in the blurred background, even the colour of the falling leaves compliment her skin & hair, the normal rule is to have the subject looking direct at the viewer but she is looking at the direction of the leaves & this also helps to add a bit of mystery (probably the wrong word) to the image & making it interesting to the viewer..I think i would agree with the comment that No3 is not in the usual sense a portrait, but its a very interesting "fun" Image, yes the background does take first place at least at first, but when you notice the girl, she is in the only position that makes this a real fun image, in fact the painting is interacting with the girl, so its a good example of thinking about your background to either enhance &/or make or break the photo, so thanks again for a very interesting & useful article

  • Ashley

    November 12, 2010 06:18 pm

    After rereading my previous comment, I just have to say... I'm not jumping to conclusions or accussing any one of anything. For all I know it was an original photo and it was allowed to be used as a "photo fun" tool. I have no idea. My previous comment sounded like I was accusing someone of something. I'm not at all. I literally just found it odd. I think it's a beautiful photo and very humurous at the same time.

  • Ashley

    November 12, 2010 05:50 pm

    I'm kind of confused on photo #3 as I just ran into "the effect" today on photofunia.com. I was able to "duplicate" the same photo. I googled "New York Public Library Mural". Once I found the right photo, I saved it. Uploaded it to photofunia.com. Cropped to size and came out with the exact same shot. I just found it odd...

  • John Finster

    November 12, 2010 05:08 pm

    Nice article - a new perspective. This gives me a whole new way of looking at candid portrait photography, too - or taking pictures of strangers without really taking pictures of them, paparazzi-style.

  • Marvin Rivera

    November 12, 2010 05:00 pm

    A professional creates his/her photos and displays only the best work. Does it for money so quality is the upmost priority over quantity.

    an Amateur snaps pretty photos.

    and advanced amateur does the same as a professional but he/she does not earn any or enough income from it to call it a profession. Shoots mostly for personal pleasure.

    To me , Photography is more than just backgrounds and foregrounds and light. Its composition and Art. Its telling a story that its pleasent to the eyes.

    Thats just my opinion ofcourse.

    I do like the good points and ideas I always find around here and I understand that it's the sum of all of them that makes a great photograph.

    Marvin

  • Ayush

    November 12, 2010 12:10 pm

    Good point, if the background goes well with the subject, it could tell a story of its own.

  • Alexis

    November 12, 2010 10:07 am

    Wow... that's some really good advice. I think I'll try to think more about backgrounds now!

  • glen

    November 12, 2010 10:06 am

    i usually blur the background when it comes to portraiture..but this article gave me another way of shooting portraits..thanks for the info...

  • dandab

    November 12, 2010 08:44 am

    Love the article -- thank you -- 4 wonderful photos selected! I especially love number 3 -- what a moment. We interact with these moments all the time without a second thought until it is made into a beautiful photograph. I'd call this a documentary nontraditional portrait -- why not -- if you happen to have say 12 photos of this woman throughout her day it would be a wonderful collection of portraits that may really speak to who she may be. Wonderful article getting to the art and technique of making photos.

  • john guate

    November 12, 2010 08:04 am

    i think of this all the time, the backgrounds to me, make the image, cause if it didn't matter just shoot in a studio with green screen! i love shooting on location, its way more of a challenge! anyone can shoot in a studio with lights. i can take people who don't even know photography, set up the camera and lighting and they get great shots, then do some photochop, and walla, but get outside, and its a whole new game! excellent article, thank you for sharing! john

  • John

    November 12, 2010 07:14 am

    Good article! Just one little nit to pick though. I suggest the use of a spell-check before publishing. When I see in big,bold letters "...Intruige" instead of Intrigue, it distracts from the content of the article before I even read it...

  • SenatorFluffy

    November 12, 2010 06:17 am

    Interesting article,Great portraits. I have seen so many (would have been great ) shots ruined by the Photographer NOT paying attention to the background. Taking out items that distract, or at least do not add to the shot... well that's the Photographers job. Make your statement! Don't let the background diminish your final product.

  • Michelle

    November 12, 2010 04:07 am

    This is a great basic article that all new photographers should read. When starting out, a lot of photographers tend to think more of posing and stress about facial features and such. While those things are important, the background a person is shot in is so much more important than many realize. It can set a mood, help tell a person's story, or add color and lines. Perhaps to consider a portrait one should consider the background first. (I do - I will scout out places before portrait shots - I'm sure many of us do this) But one also has to be open to manipulating the background or objects around a subject as well. Those leaves in the second shot didn't get there by accident. And always take more shots from different angles. Play. Explore the world around you and your subject. Don't ever limit a person's photo to just one place one way. Learn them. Ask them questions. Then bring that out in your images of them. It will bring you closer to the client and they will love the way you show their true self as well.

  • Louise

    November 12, 2010 04:02 am

    I totally love the idea of photographing a person in their surroundings. I agree also that it is not the only way to do portraits. I've been taking photos for about 5 years and only very recently have become interested in portraits. I have done very, very few but thought too that it would be great to get to know about the person before doing their portrait. Can you recommend any other good websites that talk about portrait photography?

  • steven koontz

    November 12, 2010 02:40 am

    nice article.......here is a photo I took at a recent SCORPIONS (the legendary German rock band) concert in Atlanta.......kind of got a gift on the timing of the photo and the background at the same time......

    [eimg url='http://sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash2/hs016.ash2/34186_1563170719676_1247606263_31630558_2298967_n.jpg' title='34186_1563170719676_1247606263_31630558_2298967_n.jpg']

  • Jon Pertwee

    November 12, 2010 02:33 am

    Very interesting. I think that a photograph should always tell a story. When you put people into context, you add to that story. I love the photo by untrainedeye and I'm not such a pedant to need to say it's not this or that, it's a lovely piece of art, it captures a moment perfectly, it's beautifully balanced, and it tells a story, great article, thanks.

  • Geri-Jean

    November 12, 2010 02:29 am

    FABULOUS !!! THANK YOU !!!

  • Dan Ketcham

    November 11, 2010 11:27 pm

    Very good...
    Honestly, i am dealing with this same thing right now...
    lately Ive been focusing more on portrait work and when I am shooting, I will talk with the clients and all, but sometimes I have to come out and tell them, that its not them i am worried about, its the background...

  • lemon

    November 11, 2010 04:08 pm

    Great article !!
    i have my similar shots
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lemonboyz/4340492951/

  • Carla

    November 11, 2010 01:33 pm

    Portrait photography does not necessarily mean a photograph of a persons face. Portrait photography can be close ups of the person's hands, feet....anything part of that person that helps to tell the "story" of that person. With that said photo #3 is more a work of art. I love the way the portrait interacts with the woman as she is fixing her skirt. I do agree it is not so much a portrait, but we should look at this as what it is a lesson on using the background to help tell the story of the people being photographed.

    I do not agree with photo #1 being a great photo. There is merging behind the man on the rights head on two sides! There is some spider looking thing growing out of his temple and the ceiling beam is intersecting his head from behind. To me these two things are so distracting I can't really focus on the composition or the message behind the photo.

    Photo number 2 and 4 are the best! I love the composition and how the subject seems to be engaged in/with their background. These two photos use the background as an informative tool. To me this is what portrait photography is all about.

  • Chelsea (CLR Photography)

    November 11, 2010 11:03 am

    I love that second photo. Great post

  • danfoy

    November 11, 2010 10:32 am

    I do love it when old photos of mine crop up in articles on blogs I read, makes a nice surprise :-)

  • Ambition

    November 11, 2010 07:33 am

    "An Untrained Eye" that shot is great! I love the 3rd photo!!! It just goes to show how preoccupied we can be and not really paying attention to our surroundings. This photo made me smile! Love the photo!!!

  • Kelli

    November 11, 2010 03:38 am

    I love these portraits! Thank you for reminding me of the importance of backgrounds.

  • www.internationalwed.com

    November 11, 2010 02:16 am

    very nice work! i like the photos!

  • Andrew Graham Todes

    November 10, 2010 11:09 pm

    Background is the key. I've been telling students this for years. I pay minimal attention to the subject when I shoot. 60% of my attention goes to the background; 40% to light (as Alex alluded to above). If the subject is relaxed and comfortable around you, the rest takes care of itself.

  • fortunato_uno

    November 10, 2010 10:51 pm

    This is one of the reasons I'm looking to work with models, it'll give me a chance to exparament with compasistion. I try to get as much story in a shot and the background plays a big part in that. Thanks for another great article.

  • CStGPA

    November 10, 2010 10:47 pm

    Some excellent tips here. I do a lot of portraits and it is so essential to look at the background. This gives a great insight which I shall try on my next shoot. Thanks

  • Noel

    November 10, 2010 10:12 pm

    very useful and enduring tip indeed! I just hope I don't forget it soon :)

  • Blazej Mrozinski

    November 10, 2010 07:55 pm

    Hi there,
    thanks for adding my photo to your article! Much appreciated!

    Best regards from Poland,
    blazej

  • Kasey J

    November 10, 2010 05:09 pm

    How can anyone NOT see something amazing in photo #3? I see layers of narrative going on here! There is a power struggle going on between subjects, for sure. My eyes are drawn both to the girl on the bench and the man in the middle in the painting. Is she suddenly making an adjustment toward modesty or risqué, and was it in some way influenced by what she saw in the painting? Is the man in the middle struggling to see past his subduer to see what the girl on the bench is up to? And oh, how his interest in her must piss off the other two! I am left to wonder which of the two--girl or painting--was the cause of the other. Portrait? Maybe, maybe not. It depends to me on how you interpret the photo. Intriguing? ABSOLUTELY. Talk about a well thought out background. If this was a candid shot... then my hat is truly off, but great work either way!

  • anja

    November 10, 2010 11:58 am

    this is a really helpful article.

  • Lovelyn

    November 10, 2010 10:09 am

    Great tips. I've only just started experimenting with portrait photography. When I do take portraits I tend to just blur the backgrounds, but I may try experimenting with using the background in the pictures a few times to see what I think.

  • An Untrained Eye

    November 10, 2010 08:37 am

    Many thanks for including my photograph (#3) here - I'm truly flattered! That said, I sympathize entirely with those commenters here criticizing it as not being an effective portrait - it was never intended to be one! It's a candid shot - I would put it into the street photography genre, even though it was taken inside the New York public library - and I was much more interested in the juxtaposition and the interaction of the woman with the mural behind her than in capturing her as an individual.

  • Deirdre

    November 10, 2010 08:20 am

    Excellent tips. I lean more towards landscapes and street scenes and still lifes than portraits, and recently I've been experimenting more with getting people into those scenes -- walking through, in the background, admiring it, etc. It's similar to what you are describing but coming from the other direction.

    You should check the spelling of the title of this article :-)

  • Chris

    November 10, 2010 07:10 am

    I'd agree. I try to shoot as if the background was the highlight. Or I think would this look good without the people in the shot? If the answer is yes, keep the people in the shot and take it. If no, keep moving until it happens.

  • Mya

    November 10, 2010 06:38 am

    Pictures 1 and 2 are fabulous. 3, I was more attracted to the painting than to the subject, so i don't think that cut it for me. 4, I can't decide. I'd love to be able to take pictures like 1 and 2 someday. Good article though, I haven't really considered the background too much before this while taking portraits

  • Diana Padilla

    November 10, 2010 06:34 am

    I think this is a good tip, many of us just try to take a great photo of our subject, but is necesary to give them a good 'context' too.

    I love number 2 too, its fantastic! love the light, the color, composture, everything! congrats :)

  • B

    November 10, 2010 06:17 am

    Great advice, but like anything can be taken too far.

    As others have said, example #3 is not a portrait. Even if the figure was posed so we could see her face, the background is too dominant in that example. But I think #4 is the best example; it's a simple, humanizing image that uses the background to inform the subject. We (presumably) know so much more about the woman in that image because of the very nicely set background.

  • Karen Stuebing

    November 10, 2010 05:15 am

    Great article. Environmental portraits have a place too. In a way, they are like professional snapshots in that they capture people in everyday life but in a way most people can't do with their own cameras.

    I love, love, love number 2. I imagine someone threw leaves in the air. It is just perfect and the color is so complementary to the subject. Her pose gives it such a fun feeling. If only I could envision a scene like that photographer did. Sigh. :)

    Number 3 is not a portrait to me. It is fantastic photo but you can't see her face at all.

    I can't make up my mind about number 4. I like it and I don't. I agree with mei tang about the background. But then again it tells a story too.

    I'm a big background blurrer so this gives me a lot to think about.

  • Leonardo

    November 10, 2010 04:16 am

    Perfect! This is it!

    I already throught about this. But it's not in long DOFs only!
    In cream DOFs it's very important, too. I like so much the colors and shapes provided by short DOFs. In many cases it makes the diference in the picture!

    Very nice post, Darren. Keep writing!

  • Efrain

    November 10, 2010 04:00 am

    There's a very interesting 365 going on in Flickr by Markus Schwarze. He uses a very narrow depth of field giving the hint of a background, but not to much as to distract you from the subject.

    Besides, he posts a story with every photo which makes the whole thing a tad more interesting.

    I guess it's ok to use the link since the photos are public and often included on the Flickr Explore page. If not, please let know to delete it:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/wefwef/sets/72157623286697398/

  • Nikki

    November 10, 2010 03:32 am

    I think background is especially key in environmental portraiture. The background in this genre of potraiture is truly defined by your subject and visa versa.

  • harold

    November 10, 2010 02:54 am

    thanks for sharing. these are the type of information i'm looking for to improve on my skills.... thank you very much...

  • Scott

    November 10, 2010 02:53 am

    Very solid advice, the background always seems to make or break a portrait, a type of photography I'm still working on.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4422222791/

  • Desiree Cherisse

    November 10, 2010 02:44 am

    That is so interesting. What a different point of view.

  • Alex

    November 10, 2010 02:27 am

    Well, how true.

    For me the difference between a photo taken by a professional and a snapshot taken my an amateur is almost always down to the professional thinking about, and controlling two things:

    1. background
    2. light

    You master that, and you will have arrived - so to speak!

  • sasha

    November 10, 2010 02:22 am

    Great post and great shots. I think the term for this would be "Environmental Portraits"
    one of mine
    [eimg url='http://www.sashagitin.com/UploadImages/cafe-lifestyle/1285869962.jpg' title='1285869962.jpg']

  • Stila

    November 10, 2010 02:15 am

    Really interesting!! I think it's also a great tip for street photograpy..thanks a lot for sharing. The pic of the girl with the leaves is awesome!

  • Brian Hoffman

    November 10, 2010 02:12 am

    Thanks for the tip. Now your old professional friend's ideas have reached all of us.

  • Carolyn

    November 10, 2010 02:01 am

    great stuff!

    this old professional friend... does he have an online portfolio?

  • Miguel

    November 10, 2010 01:58 am

    Loving the 2nd picture!

  • Mei Teng

    November 10, 2010 12:35 am

    Thanks for sharing this great tip. However, I find the background in photo #3 is rather distracting.

  • Eric

    November 10, 2010 12:31 am

    Simple idea with huge effects on the image. Love it.

  • Leo

    November 9, 2010 11:36 pm

    I'm just wondering what lens is being used in some of the shots you put up for this article? I'm an amateur and I love portrait photography. I really want to know what to aim for by way of a quality lens.

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