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Simplifying Portrait Backgrounds

Portrait photography is fascinating for a million different reasons, not the least of which is how we love looking at other people. There’s something special about the human face. We respond to it viscerally when we see someone’s humanity right there in a photograph. Perhaps that’s why so many dedicate so much time to trying to do it well.

Of all the technical requirements that make for a traditionally great portrait, perhaps none is so essential yet so overlooked as a simple, unobtrusive background. When the background competes for the viewer’s attention, the subject’s face somehow looks less appealing. So, photographers for more than a century have bent over backward to make portraits with simple backgrounds. Here are four tried-and-true techniques for upgrading the quality of your portraits simply by simplifying the background. 

Use A Truly Seamless Background

Giant rolls of paper often used in the studio, colloquially known as a “seamless,” are an ideal way to ensure nothing in the background competes for attention with the subject in the foreground. With virtually no lighting skill, knowledge of proper lens choice or camera technique, with a subject in front of a seamless background it’s easy to put the attention where it should be. Add those other elements, however, and the simple seamless is elevated. In lieu of rolls of paper photographers can achieve the same sort of seamless quality by using a pop-up fabric background, a blank wall or just a large empty space that disappears into darkness. All of the above have a century-long tradition in portrait photography precisely because they put the face at the center of attention.

The Subject’s Distance To Background

Even with seamless paper, a background can be unintentionally eye-catching. The subtle texture of wrinkles in the paper, for instance, are sharper when they’re closer to the subject. More important, though, distance from subject to background really comes into play when you want the background to literally recede from the fore. Doing this requires distance between the subject and the background. Interestingly, the camera’s distance to the subject also factors in. If you stand the subject 20 feet from a brick wall behind him, then as the photographer you walk another 50 feet away, even with a fairly shallow depth of field that background is going to be readable. Stand closer to the subject, however, and the depth of field will get shallower as you adjust the focus closer. It’s why there’s an “infinity” setting on the lens; beyond a certain distance, everything is in focus.

Lens Choice Matters

With a wide-angle lens, not only will more of the background make its way into the composition, it will appear more in focus and attention-grabbing too. To eradicate this, photographers rely on long lenses to compress the scene, cut down on the area included in the background and amplify the appearance of shallow depth of field. These so-called portrait lenses typically range from 70mm to 150mm (on a full-frame camera) and generally offer sharp optics and fast maximum apertures. A 70mm lens makes it easy to make a waist-up portrait standing just a few feet from the subject, while a 150mm lens makes tight headshots a snap. Either way, these long lenses help simplify the background by eliminating extraneous information.

Use A Wide Aperture

One of the best, most effective tools for adjusting what’s sharp and what’s not in a picture is the aperture (ƒ-stop) of the lens. All other things being equal, a portrait shot at ƒ/2 and a portrait shot at ƒ/11 will look dramatically different—not the least of which being that the ƒ/2 shot will appear more visually appealing the vast majority of the time. That’s specifically because it renders the background softer and more out of focus than the same shot made at ƒ/11. This way, the background doesn’t compete for attention.

You’ve heard the term bokeh? This simply refers to the quality of that out-of-focus area. Some lenses make it smooth and beautiful, while other optics render chunky, unpleasant bokeh. The reason it matters is that we’re assuming there’s an out-of-focus area in the background to begin with. Failure to use a shallow depth of field via a fast aperture means there won’t be any bokeh in the background to salivate over. Before you can run you’ve got to walk, and before you can worry about your bokeh you’ve got to get the background out of focus. All of these techniques will help simplify a background, but none more than using a wide aperture for shallow depth of field.

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