10 Tips to Finding the Perfect Background :: Digital Photo Secrets

10 Tips to Finding the Perfect Background

by David Peterson 2 comments

Unless you’re a professional portrait photographer, you probably don’t have backdrops for shooting portraits. That's okay, because there are a lot of ways to exclude or include backgrounds that best enhance your portraits. From blurring the background to finding an appropriate one and more, I've got Ten Tips that you can use the next time you’re photographing someone, whether it's a more formal portrait or a candid shot. The first few speak to post-processing, while the rest are tricks you can use in the field.

1. Crop It Out!

We’re so caught up in the moment of capturing a subject and our minds are on settings, positions, and pushing the shutter at just the right moment that oftentimes we don’t notice how distracting a background is until we see the image on the big screen of our computers. That’s when the solution to crop comes in the handy.

Cropping out a distracting background is in effect zooming in on the subject. If this is the route you take, remember these few things: a) the lower the resolution and the more you crop, the harder it will be to maintain sharpness and clarity, b) keep the image proportionate. If your image is, for example, 18x12, crop it to a new 18x12 equivalent. You may or may not want to enlarge it back to these dimensions, but for printing purposes, you want to avoid unusual dimensions, unless you are willing to custom frame or are not going to print the image. This, of course, is a personal choice.

2. Clone Stamp!

Another post-processing trick is to clone stamp (or the like) out distractions. Maybe there is something such as a water bottle on the grass behind the subject that you want to remove. This wouldn’t necessarily be a crop option, but you could clone stamp it out, making the grass next to it cover it up!

3. Replace it all

Due to Photoshop and other programs’ options, picking the right background material can be as simple as a click of the mouse. These advanced photo-editing programs makes it possible to replace an image’s entire background with the click and drag of a mouse.

4. Shallow Depth of Field

Certainly having a shallow depth of field will blur out the background, making it let distracting and allowing your subject to shine. This is one of the best solutions. However, keep in mind that a shallow depth of field is most effective when there’s depth behind your subject. So make sure your subject is a long way away from the background, or choose a very open aperture like f5.6 or lower.

5. Go High... Go Low

If the background behind your subject is too distracting and yet the lighting is great and the shot has other things going for it, try shooting from above your subject or from a lower angle. In either case, the floor or the ceiling or the ground or the sky will be the background. This approach can add a uniqueness to the image, too.

6. Make A Backdrop!

If you don’t have professional backdrops, now could be a good time to start experimenting by making your own. Use available cloth that is clean, wrinkle free, and dark or light. The level of opacity will either absorb light or add extra light. Which one you choose depends on the help you need with the lighting and what your subject is wearing, their skin tone, and other factors unique to your situation. Keep the cloth pattern free, as a pattern will only distract from the -subject, creating the situation you’re trying to avoid!

7. Your Subject’s Wardrobe

The best way to make your subject the star is to do all you can to enhance them in the first place. As humans, we’re automatically drawn to people’s eyes, looking for expression. Have your subject dress in solid colors that flatter their eye color. When it comes to the background, browns will enhance brown eyes, just like a blue sky or green tree will enhance blue and green eyes respectively.

8. Poster Board

One of the most used backgrounds is poster board because of its affordability and because it comes in a rainbow of colors. Professional photographers often upgrade to seamless poster board, which comes in rolls that measure up to 140 inches wide. You can collect several shades of poster board to have on hand, but just remember a few things: a) you’ll need to have a way to stand it up or secure it to the wall behind your subject, b) poster board is fairly weak and can rip easily, so if you want it to last, take care of it.

9. Getting Advanced

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t give an advanced option for creating the best background. For photographers who want to become more serious, a green screen makes for a good investment. Also known as Chroma Key photography, using a green screen lets the photographer add in their chosen background later using post-processing software like option 3 above.

10. Change Up the Angles

If your background doesn’t look right in your preview screen, it may be the angle you’re shooting from that needs to change. Try changing up the perspective by holding your camera at a different angle or repositioning yourself by moving around your subject. Taking photos from both above and below or side to side can change the outcome of your images quite a bit.

One last note is that if the portraits are a thematic one, you can include a background that makes sense. Such as a girl who loves horses might have a saddle behind her if she’s standing next to her horse. This is an individual choice depending on the shoot.

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  1. Stacy Paalanen says:

    Loving all the material you have made available and learning a lot! Looking at computers from the angle of ease of doing post production work on photos. Any comments/pros/cons on how touchscreens work for these tasks vs. non-touch? Track pads vs. mouse? HD vs. not quite HD? Good processor/RAM for running Photoshop?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Stacy,

      Most professionals use a graphics tablet with a stylus. And definitely go for as fast a computer as you can afford with lots of RAM. Photoshop runs better the more power you can give it.

      Good luck!


  2. David Wright says:

    I have been taking pictures on & off since I was a child, but I have only been doing your photo course for a few weeks, already I have learnt more about taking better photographs than I have throughout the 40 years of holding a camera, I always held the idea that photographs were a way to capture the moment, no matter how it turned out, I have since discovered real photography and my shots have improved 100% in that short time.
    I look forward to the continued teaching that your course is providing.
    I um'd & er'd for a while before taking the plunge and buying your course, my only regret is that I didn't take it up earlier.
    I often find myself staring at my own photo's and admiring the amount of detail that I now capture. Thank you.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.