How to Find Great Backgrounds for Portraits

Portraits and backgrounds

I used a short telephoto lens at a wide aperture to throw the cliff in the background out of focus in this photo. With this technique, the background itself isn’t so important as no-one can tell what it is, but it must still complement the subject.

Finding great backgrounds that complement the subject is an essential part of the process of creating beautiful portraits. My article How to Plan the Perfect Portrait Shoot will help you with the other aspects of putting together a portrait shoot, but today I thought it would be interesting to delve deeper into the subject of backgrounds for portraits. Here are some things to think about in your search for the perfect background for your portraits.

Do you want your background to be sharp or blurred?

This is an important question because the answer dictates your entire approach to the portrait shoot.

If you want the background to be in focus, then this suggests that the background is in some way relevant to your subject. For instance, if you are taking a portrait of a performing musician, then perhaps it would be nice to take a photo in a venue where they perform, including the background to show the environment.

On the other hand, if your aim is simply to take a pretty portrait of somebody, then the background may not be so relevant, but it must be complementary. A good example of this is taking a portrait of somebody on a beach, where the environment becomes an important part of the composition.

The easiest way to take a portrait with the background in focus is to use a wide-angle lens with a smallish aperture (f/8 is ideal). You should be careful not to get too close to the subject (avoiding distortion) and to include lots of background.

Portraits and backgrounds

I used a 24mm lens at f/4 for this portrait. With such a wide-angle lens f/4 was sufficient to ensure the entire background was relatively sharp.

If you want to take photos with a completely blurred background, then the background itself isn’t so important. It will be out of focus, so nobody will be able to tell what it is. The important thing is that you need to be able to position your model some distance from the background. Then all you need to do is to use a short telephoto lens with a wide aperture, and if the model is far enough from the background it will go out of focus.

This technique works best with prime lenses because of their wider maximum apertures. But you can still make it work, even with an 18-55mm kit lens (which typically have maximum aperture settings of f/5.6). You’ll just need to move your model further away from the background, and get as close to her as you can (try taking a simple head and shoulders shot) to make it work.

Don’t forget there’s a middle ground between these two extremes. You may want to render the background slightly out of focus, so it is still recognizable but not so sharp it competes with the model for attention.

Portraits and backgrounds

The background of this portrait is out of focus, but still sharp enough for the viewer to tell what it is.

Are you going to take your photos indoors or outside?

The answer to this question is important because it leads to the question of how you are going to light your photo.

For example, indoor locations can be great for shoots that take place in the winter time, or even at night, when you can’t rely on the weather to be good enough to take photos outdoors. While you may be able to use your house as a location, another idea is to keep an eye out for interesting indoor locations in your local area that you may be able to use. Examples are cafes, bars and hotels. Once you’ve found a photogenic location, it’s a simple matter of finding the right person to ask for permission to use that location for a shoot.

Once you’ve found the location, you need to decide how to light the portrait. You might be fine with natural light, especially if there are large windows or your camera works well at high ISOs. You’ll probably need an assistant with a reflector to help out.

If you decide to use flash to light your portrait, things may be a little more complex. You’ll need room for lighting stands, and you may need to run power cords across the floor. If you intend to use flash, make sure you mention this when you ask permission to use the location.

Portraits and backgrounds

I took this portrait in a cafe, using natural light from the windows.

If you are going to take your photos outside then the question of lighting still applies. Do you intend to use natural light? Again, an assistant with a reflector may be useful. If you intend to use flash to supplement or even overpower the natural light, then you need to consider if you have enough room in your chosen location to set them up? Will you need someone to help you? Thinking through the practicalities will help your shoot run smoothly.

Background ideas

Finally, here are some of my favourite locations for taking portraits. You may find these suggestions useful in your search for great backgrounds.

Beaches: I especially like rocky beaches as rocks make great backgrounds. The key to getting the best from a beach location is to take the portraits close to the sunset and utilize the beautiful quality of light during the golden hour.

Gardens or parks: Public gardens can be a great place to take portraits. They are normally quite beautiful and may contain a variety of plants and trees that you can’t find elsewhere in your area.

Urban or suburban areas: I like to wander around interesting parts of the city I live in with my model looking for good backgrounds. It’s amazing how many times a wall or doorway can make a simple yet effective background for a portrait.

Portraits and backgrounds

This portrait was taken using an ivy covered wall (that I found on a street near my house) as a background.

Woodlands: These can be tricky as the light tends to come from above, between the trees, almost like a spotlight. The result is harsh shadows under your model’s eyes and nose, even on an overcast day. The solution is to use a reflector or flash to fill in the shadows. While the lighting isn’t always easy in woodlands, the results can be worth the effort.

Children’s playgrounds: Use a playground at a quiet time and your model can have lots of fun on the rides, adding a sense of movement and vitality to your portraits.

Portraits and backgrounds

We went to a children’s playground in the late afternoon (no kids to disturb) to take this portrait. My model enjoyed playing around on the rides.

Your turn

These are my suggestions, now it’s your turn. Can you suggest any locations or types of background that are suitable for portraits? Please let us know in the comments.

The Natural Portrait photography ebookThe Natural Portrait

My ebook The Natural Portrait teaches you how to take beautiful portraits in natural light. This 240 page ebook, published by Craft & Vision, takes you through the entire process of natural light portrait photography through from finding a model, deciding where to shoot, working with natural light and post-processing your images. Click the link to learn more or buy.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. He's written over 25 popular photography ebooks (use the code DPS20 for a 20% discount on your first order). Download his Composition PhotoTips Cards now for free!

  • pincherio

    Ironic that you suggested a children’s playground “so your model can have lots of fun on the rides, adding a sense of movement and vitality to your portrait,” and the photo you used was taken with a shutter speed so fast that it froze whatever action there was. But that’s just me being nitpicky. Great tips and great article overall. Thanks for the share.

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks Andy.

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  • I recently had my first beauty shoot and this was one of my biggest concerns: we were indoors without any artificial light, so I needed to stay close to the windows to have natural light, but that reduced the amount of backgrounds that I could play with and it was a bit difficult to find variation. In the end, and despite all this, I think the results were quite nice, but I still have loads to learn!

    See the results at my blog here:

  • Nice info
    Try to apply this
    Thank you

  • Not bad at all Gonzalo. I liked the two portraits with reflections at the end. The reflections themselves became the background, creating a very interesting effect.

  • Thanks Andrew, those 2 shots were my favorites as well! 😉

  • Robin Driscoll

    My shoot last week… Client wanted head shots in her office shoot she changes her mind and wanted a more formal studio light. Used white wall and two speed lights. Shot informal portrait with shallow depth of field outsid her office -available light. The Senior shot was also a speed light and a reflector with a box hedge as the background. During my shoot I look at changing depth of field to give my client a variety of shots from the same viewpoint.

  • James Arzente

    I also feel that the lst two were strong, I’d work on the posing aspect of the shoot they didn’t seem natural, could be the model or the direction. The technical part was right on.

  • Joel

    Here’s another violinist, with a twist. The background is a mural. Unfortunately, there was a canopy over the stage, so there’s not much I could do about the shade.

  • Thanks for the feedback James!

  • Keval Chheda Photography

    I generally keep experimenting with backgrounds to focus and sharpen my subject.

  • Joel

    The outdoor shot needs to be cropped, too much background. The fence is a leading line that takes your eye away from the subject.
    The blonde girl could use a little less vignette.
    Just my opinion. You have some nice shots there.

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