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8 Tips for Simple Portrait Backgrounds

Updated: May 28, 2019

What I love about photography is that there are no absolute rules. While lots of photographers excel in their genres, it’s still a subjective game.


I might love a photo that you'd rather trash. A great photo to you may not cut it for me. Why? Well, it all goes back to how individualistic we are, driven by our own unique experiences, likes and dislikes.


So with all that in mind, I can only provide my opinions. If any become tucked in the back of your mind and prove useful at some point, then it makes my writing all worthwhile.


Even the ground (or snow) can be a nice background. (f/4, 1/320th second, ISO 200, 55-200mm lens)

There’s so much that goes on in portrait photography, and paying attention to your background is one of the major things. For now, I’ll focus on informal, daytime, outdoor portraits, taken with a handheld camera alone – without added lighting.


Effective, Simple Backgrounds


If you’re like me, you have a camera with you at almost all times. If your DSLR or point-and-shoot’s not on you, then your phone most likely is. I love using my iPhone. I believe phone cameras can take spectacular photos, including portraits.


The key to choosing a simple background is that you want your subject to be the focal point of your picture. You don’t want distracting elements in the background to take away from where you want the viewer to look. No weird things around the edges or the foreground.


So what are some tips to accomplish good portraits with simple backgrounds?


1. First, look around for the simple backgrounds. It only takes a second no matter where you are. Better yet, if you have the time, scope out the area to find the simple backgrounds well before taking photos. The most obvious choices are walls, architectural elements and large objects that will fill your frame around your subject. If the wall looks pretty plain, great! You’ve picked a simple background.


The walls of a garage (used here) or abandoned building serving as your background? Yup, they can be fantastic. (f/4.5, 320th of second, ISO 400, 55-200mm lens)

2. If your simple background is a wall or object that has elements like cracks or textures, this can be pretty wonderful. You can later keep the cracks or textures, or you can remove, change, or soften them during your processing phase in a program like Photoshop. Of course, you can also add textures through an app or photo program – perfectly fine if you’re looking for such things in your end result.


3. Don’t get caught up in selecting a background that you think should offer a certain kind of light. What’s trending these days is light backgrounds – you’ll see it a lot in wedding photography. While that’s fine, it doesn’t mean darker backgrounds are bad. You can always experiment.


4. Simple backgrounds aren’t limited to things like walls and objects. A simple background can also be an open field, so long as you don’t have weird things that’ll show up in the background or along the edges. Wide open spaces as backgrounds can be very nice, particularly if you shoot with a shallow depth-of-field, enabling anything in the background to look beautifully soft and fuzzy.

The background here is just wide open space. (f/5.6, 320th of second, ISO 360, 55-200mm lens)

5. Don’t get concerned about whether you have the right lens. The right lens is the one you have. That said, good portrait lenses for DSLRs that I like are 85mm, 50mm and 35mm prime lenses. I also like zoom lenses, such as my 24-70mm and 55-200 mm zooms, especially when I know I’m going to shoot variety that day.


6. When using a DSLR, your camera’s exposure should be set so that your subject’s face will not end up over- or underexposed. There’s no golden rule for the right exposure because it depends on how much light you have. A shallower depth-of-field (smaller f-stop) is often preferred so that your subject stands out in focus.


The imperfections of the wall, combined with the late-afternoon shadows, add to the photo's character. (f/11, 320th of second, ISO 200, 35-70mm lens)

7. Think twice before taking a photo if you see deep shadows in areas such as the neck or under the eyes. I tend to move subjects into a different position to avoid large shadows. However, sometimes a shadow can enhance the mood, story, or artful look of a picture.


8. You might have the best background in the world, but if your subject is in not in focus, you may as well delete the photo. When taking the picture, be sure that the eyes are in sharp focus.


I'm sure I could find plenty more tips to discuss, but the topic can get overwhelming. These eight tips are a good start toward capturing good portraits with simple backgrounds.

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