Monday, April 16, 2012

Portrait Backgrounds

Keep it simple

The simplest possible background is a painted wall, or a sheet or blanket hung against a wall. Generally, such a background should have a matte surface to prevent reflections (especially when using fill-in flash).


Try to avoid colour clashes with the subject and their clothing. Hot colours (reds, oranges) advance and are best avoided, while cool colours (greens, blues) recede and help the subject stand-out. Also try to avoid tonal clashes such as a pale subject against a very dark background, or a dark subject against a very light backdrop. It is highly likely that your camera meter will not cope well with such extremes.

Portrait Backgrounds

Don't use backgrounds with horizontal and/or vertical lines. A brick wall, for example, makes a particularly bad background due to the severe horizontal and vertical lines, plus the red colour of brick is too warm and clashes with most skin colours.

The overall aim should be to minimize the competition for attention between the subject and the background.

De clutter

If you are unable to find a suitably plain backdrop (or decide not use one for other reasons), move any unnecessary clutter from the background. Reflective objects in particular are best removed out of shot (e.g. mirrors, pictures under glass).

If possible, use a large aperture setting to put the background out of focus. This has the added benefit of making the subject stand out sharply. The further away the background is, the darker and the more out of focus it will appear.

When outdoors, don't shoot against hedges as a backdrop. They are usually too dark, and tend to leak light producing a speckled effect. Trees do not make good backdrops either, and branches have a habit of appearing as though they are sticking out of heads.


If there is a horizon in the background, try to keep it either low or high to avoid dividing the picture in half. Careless positioning can cause undesirable juxtapositions, such as hedges appearing to go into the subject's ear and out the other.


An appropriate background is something that reflects the character of the subject. Returning to our brick wall; if the subject is a Brick Layer, and in work clothes, then a brick wall might become a suitable backdrop?

Portrait Backgrounds

Portrait photography from a Portrait Artist's perspective. Portraits by John Burton

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