Portrait Background Basics

One of the most important things you can do to make better portraits is to find, or create, a background free of distraction. This doesn’t mean your backgrounds have to be plain, especially if you’re shooting an environmental portrait where context is key. But, generally, you want to find a setting that focuses attention on your subject with minimal visual clutter. Here are some essential tips to ensure that your model—and not the background—is the center of attention.

3. Use a telephoto lens


There’s a reason why portrait studios have roll upon roll of neutral backdrops—they don’t distract from the subject and they’re relatively easy to light. Most of us don’t have the room for a dedicated photo studio, so we have to be more creative.

For a studio look at home, a blank wall, closed window curtains or even a bed sheet taped to the ceiling all can provide a clean backdrop for your image. You can use a single light placed behind your subject to illuminate the background and create a sense of space and depth. If you’re working with on-camera flash, try bouncing it off of the ceiling for softer, more diffused light.

When shooting outdoors, look for a large wall or a garage door (alleys at midday are a good place to start), or an open vista where you can use the sky as your background.

2. Reduce your depth of field


Using a large aperture for shallow depth of field not only will help create a pleasing, soft background, but it can let you be creative with out-of-focus foreground elements, too.

Be careful, though! With a shallow depth of field, it’s especially critical to be sure that your subject’s facial features are in focus, so try manual focusing. Review images on your camera’s LCD preview to zoom in on facial details and check that they’re sharp.

Or consider exposure bracketing with multiple apertures; it’s safer than finding that your favorite shots are slightly out of focus when you view them on a larger screen. Though a pleasing background is important, focus is fundamental.

4. Try software effects


Telephoto lenses can help eliminate background distractions by cropping out most of the surroundings and allowing your subject to dominate the frame. Depth of field also decreases as focal length increases, softening the background.

Another benefit of telephoto lenses is that they "compress" the perspective, making objects closer to the lens appear smaller relative to objects farther from the lens. In portrait photography, this has the often pleasing effect of reducing the prominence of your subject’s nose and reducing the "nose-to-ear" distance. A telephoto lens also allows you to work at a comfortable distance from your model. Telephoto zooms give you compositional flexibility, too.


Though it’s always preferable to get the shot as close to perfect as possible with your camera and lens, you have options for cleaning up your backgrounds with software. Though this means more computer work—and things can look weird if you’re not careful—software can help when you captured the perfect expression in a less than perfect environment. If you have skill with masking in Photoshop, you might apply a soft blur to the background manually; or there are excellent software plug-ins dedicated to creating more pleasing portrait backgrounds.

Try these tips—by themselves or working together—for subject-flattering, pro-quality portraits.

Flash Bounce

ExpoImaging’s Rogue FlashBender is an indispensable tool for shaping your speedlight’s output if you’re using on-camera flash. You can mold and position the FlashBender to act as a reflector to bounce light toward your subject, as a flag to reduce the flash output or as a snoot to focus your flash with a spotlight effect. List Price: From $35. www.expoimaging.com


To add fill light outdoors, collapsible reflectors like the Westcott 5-in-1 reflector are affordable and extremely useful. The 5-in-1’s unique design includes gold, silver and white reflector panels, along with a white diffuser and a black block. Available in 20-, 40- and 50-inch diameters. Estimated Street Price: From $23 (20-inch). fjwestcott.com

Fast Aperture

Ideal for portraiture and more, Tamron’s new SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD offers a constant, fast maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 across the focal range for minimizing depth of field. The lens incorporates Tamron’s Vibration Compensation (VC), helping you to shoot sharp when handheld. The lens is available for Canon, Nikon and Sony systems (the Sony model doesn’t include VC, as a similar feature is built into Sony’s camera bodies). Estimated Street Price: $1,299. www.tamron-usa.com


Plug-ins like Alien Skin Bokeh and onOne FocalPoint help you simulate the effects of a superfast lens after the fact. Both applications make it much easier and faster to create the effect than working with masks in Photoshop, and provide other unique enhancements to refine the final portrait. Free trials are downloadable for each via the respective websites. www.alienskin.com, www.ononesoftware.com

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