Oxford School of Photography

insights into photography

9 Tips for a Perfect Portrait Background

This article by Valerie Robinson repeats a chunk of what is taught on our Portrait Photography course

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.

 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!”..…..MORE

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.

portrait background photography

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.

portrait background photography

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