Design, Photography, & Fashion

How to Find the Right Portrait Background: 5 Tips for Choosing Photography Backgrounds

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 11, 2019 • 5 min read

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One of the most crucial elements of effective portrait photography is the selection of a good background. The right portrait background can not only make your subject look great, it can also give you room to experiment with tone, mood, and your own creative style.

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Annie Leibovitz Teaches PhotographyAnnie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Annie brings you into her studio and onto her shoots to teach you everything she knows about portraiture and telling stories through images.

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What Are Common Backgrounds for Portrait Photography?

When it comes to choosing a portrait background, the possibilities can seem limitless. Here are some simple, common backgrounds used in portrait photography:

  • Blurred Natural Background. Portrait photographers often seek out blurred, soft backgrounds when photographing their subject’s face in close-up. If you’re shooting an outdoor portrait session, a blurred tree or a mountain scene can contrast nicely with the sharply defined facial features and facial expressions of your subject in the foreground. Using a shallow depth of field can help you achieve a blurred background effect. This can be adjusted in the camera settings of most DSLR cameras.
  • Detailed Natural Background. A carefully considered and detailed natural background of a landscape or skylie can provide the perfect ingredient to compliment creative portrait photography.
  • White Seamless Background. A white background is a great option for headshot photography, simple portraits, stock photos, and product photography. You’ll need to pay special attention to lighting a white backdrop, or else your white seamless paper will appear shadowy or muddy in tone.
  • Black Background. A black backdrop is a good portrait option when you’re looking for cool, professional portraits. You can also employ low-key lighting on a black background to create moody, stunning portraits in black and white.
  • Solid Color Background. Solid color backgrounds are a good option if you’re trying to create a classic look for family portraits and other types of simple portraiture. Neutral background colors like grey or tan are simple, versatile, and easy to color correct in post processing.
  • Textured Background. Photography backdrops with an element of texture can add a dynamic feel to an otherwise typical photoshoot. Shooting in front of muslin fabric backdrops, for instance, can provide an intriguing quality to your portrait shots without being overly distracting to the viewer’s eyes.
  • Green Screen Background. Having trouble choosing between photo backgrounds? Try shooting in front of a green screen. During post-processing, you can use the chroma key feature to experiment with vinyl backdrops, canvas backdrops, muslin backdrops, or any kind of backdrop you want.

5 DIY Photo Backdrop Ideas

Not everyone has access to professional studio backdrops, appealing outdoor spaces, or collapsible backgrounds. Luckily, there are simple, DIY backdrops that can turn your home into a professional photo studio. Here are some easy but effective DIY backdrop ideas to replicate the look of real studio photography:

  1. Bed sheets: Wrinkle-free or wrinkle-resistant bed sheets can replicate the smooth, solid quality of a white seamless photography background. Conversely, a wrinkled bed sheet in front of the camera can add an interesting texture and depth to your photos.
  2. String Lights: Using string lights as part of your photography backgrounds can add instant vibrancy and an aesthetically pleasing bokeh effect. Learn more about bokeh in our step-by-step guide here.
  3. Lace Curtains: Lace curtains are a pleasing, versatile photo backdrop that works well with natural light.
  4. Sequins: Hanging sequins or streamers as your backdrop background is a fun and active way to liven up your portraits and create a makeshift photo booth background.
  5. Paper: Sometimes something as simple as a background paper and a wood floor can create a compelling, easy to assemble portrait backdrop.

If you don’t have a backdrop stand or crossbar to hang your background from, use some heavy duty PVC pipe to make your own.

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5 Tips for Choosing Portrait Backgrounds

Once you’ve decided on the best background, use these portrait photography tips to get the most out of your background:

  1. Pay attention to color. When considering background ideas, make sure that the color of your background serves as a compliment to skin tone and clothing color of your subject rather than distracting from it. For instance, a gentle blue background would compliment a white outfit nicely, while a bright, white background may wash out the tone of the clothes entirely.
  2. Consider the lighting. Even the best photos can be ruined by poor lighting, as ineffective background lighting can draw attention away from your portrait composition. If your lighting is too high key, your subject may wash into the background. A blurred background won’t be as appealing without the proper lighting conditions, as the bokeh effect will be reduced. To prevent underexposure and overexposure, choose well-lit locations when shooting outdoors. When shooting in indoor photography studios, utilize natural window light for soft backgrounds.
  3. Avoid distracting images. Though you may be tempted to try out ambitious portrait photography ideas, remember that the purpose of portrait photography is to bring out the best in your subject. If there are too many competing elements in your background, your subject will no longer be the focus. Avoid backgrounds that are too busy or cluttered, or distracting composition elements like needless photo props or strobes.
  4. Test out your background with self-portraits. If you’re unsure if your background will work for your subject, try it out on yourself first. A self-portrait photography session will also allow you to see how your background looks with different angles, as well as give you the opportunity to experiment with things like shutter speed, focal length, wide angle lenses, and double exposure. Who knows? Maybe one of your self portrait ideas or experiments will lead to a breakthrough way to shoot your eventual subject.
  5. Trust post-processing. Don’t worry if your background doesn’t look perfect. Professional photographers rely software like Photoshop to smooth out blemishes and imperfections in their image. Gentle retouching of photographs can go a long way to erasing mistakes made in the studio.

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Want to Become a Better Photographer?

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of creativity. No one knows this better than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has spent decades mastering her craft. In Annie Leibovitz’s MasterClass on photography, she reveals tips on working with subjects, crafting concepts, and shooting with natural light.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Jimmy Chin.

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