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There are many options when choosing backgrounds for your portraits. You can pretty much do anything you want. The key to remember though is lighting and positioning your subjects in relation to that background.
Whether that be natural or artificial lighting, outdoors or indoors, it is vitally important to understand how light also affects your background and not just the subject of your portrait.
Before you look at various types of backgrounds, I’d encourage you to experiment. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or to try your ideas out. That was what I did with the portraits above. I wanted to see how a portrait could look using a busy background in my own home. I decided to use LED lights for these and moved either the subject or the light around depending on how I wanted the background to look.
Backgrounds can either strengthen your portraits by directing focus toward your subject or vice versa. If the background is too busy such as the one above right, (I feel there is a weaker focus on the girl) make sure your light draws focus towards the subject rather than the lighting the background too much.
I didn’t want the background to be completely dark, however, as I wanted to capture the fairy lights in the fireplace as well as the detail of the wallpaper and other decors. To achieve this, I shot with a small aperture for greater depth of field and put my subject closer to the background. All of these required balancing the exposures in post-processing.
The photo on the left also has a very busy background – a patterned wallpaper. However, unlike the busy photo of the right, I didn’t want to emphasize the pattern but planned to use it as a blurry background. In order to achieve this effect, I shot with a shallow aperture and positioned my subject away from the wall.
The above set is another one of my experiments. This time I wanted to use textured fabrics in a natural way as a backdrop.
The lighting I used for these portraits was a simple window light coming from the side. The choice of dark fabrics was because I wanted to draw attention to the face and keep everything else rather minimal but rich in texture.
In contrast to the busy patterned background, I reigned in the color palette here to just browns and skin tones. They are simple portraits but are very rich in texture.
When I do outdoor family shots, this is one of my go-to-backgrounds. I look for bright spaces which are not the sky but are brighter than the subject such as foliage, trees, and leaves showing the bright sky behind it.
As long as it’s bright but is not the sky, it’s fine to use. The most important thing to remember is to put your subject in front of the bright background and expose for their face. This means the background gets brighter and the face is properly exposed. Use a flash to light the face if you want but as long as you properly expose the face, the image looks right.
Another thing to remember is to avoid having any dappled light on your subject’s face. The background can be dappled such as the trees with the light coming through on these the images above but never on the faces. That would more often than not, ruin your image unless you are intentionally doing so in an artistic shot, for example.
Plain backgrounds whether they be light or dark or mid-tone in color, make for classic portrait shots. You can’t go wrong with them as long as you know what you are doing with your lighting.
In the portraits above, I simply used a dark wall and window light for the main light. I put a reflector on camera right to bounce some of the light. That’s it.
The portraits above were shot in the client’s kitchen where they had a bench by the wall. It was perfect for some quick natural and fun portraits of the children for as long as they sat still! The lighting here was merely the window and skylight on the far right and a weak bounced fill flash behind me on camera left.
My main tip when shooting plain backgrounds is to match the lighting to the background so that if the background is light, then the subjects tend to be lit in the same strength. Similarly, when the background is dark, then I tend to light the subject with a moodier tone.
Although this is a personal preference, technically I prefer an even contrast between the subject and the background.
Contrary to what many people believe, a pure white background is not so easy to achieve. What I mean by that is that you can’t just set up a white background and your subject, take a picture, and you have your nice clean white seamless background. If you do this, you’ll end up with a light grey or off-white, rather muddy background.
Actually, in order to get that bright white background, you have to light the background and light your subject as well.
If you want to learn how to do this properly, read this article I have written and it will show you a step-by-step process of achieving a clean white seamless background – 3 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Shooting on a White Background.
Yes, you can fake a background in Photoshop!
The photos above were shot on a plain dark wall similar to #4 and then I added textures in Photoshop afterward. You do need a separate image of a texture to overlay on the dark wall.
You can see how this is done on this article here I have written on adding overlays: Basic Photoshop Tutorial – How to Add Creative Overlays to Your Portraits
Another way of faking it in Photoshop is by adding a sun flare. The background here was just a plain white wall but it was shot in a windowless room with very little ambient light. I used a flash at camera-left to mimic window light. In post-production, I added sun flares so it looks like the girl is sitting next to a window.
Here is an article where you can learn ways on how to add sun flares to your photos in post-production; 2 Quick Ways to Add a Sunflare in Photoshop
I hope this article has helped you in choosing backgrounds for your portraits. If you have any other ideas you wish to share, please do so in the comments below.