Background Selection in Portraits

When doing a portrait many photographers worry about the clothes the subject brings to the studio or how lightning is to be set up. I also consider those elements but the thing I think of the most is the background. The background either helps you to improve your subject's traits or make them look unfavorable. In addition, I would say a background is part of the photographer style.
There are two approaches when selecting a background.

The first one is called minimalist because goes either with a white or black background. Here in Canada, many photographers say it is an artistic choice. They claim that in their style the background do not distract the viewer's attention from the subject. This claim is true but I would like to alert the reader that this should not be the ONLY style a pro photographer should have. In many cases, the real issue is the small size of the studio that doesn't allow for more complex set ups. I remember in Cuba, our studio was a tiny re-arranged bedroom and we used black and white backdrops but later we added the backdrop we wanted in Photoshop. The method was extremely laborious but it gave us excellent results. This method it is still in use in Cuba.

The second approach is to select the background carefully to enhance the sense of depth and realism in the final portrait. Using this approach requires more space and more planning. I have found that I need to use both approaches to suit the needs of my clients. Next, I will explain the coordination of a background with the rest of the image.


Contrary to what many think, our eyes are not drawn to light or dark, they are drawn to contrast, to the smallest area that is in contrast with the largest area. To prove my point, I will ask you to do an experiment. Put a small dot of ink a white paper and look at it. Where are your eyes drawn? Controlling the contrast helps us to control the viewer's eyes when looking at our picture. Ideally the face should be the area of greatest contrast. This can be achieved by pairing light clothes with light backgrounds ( the face become the darkest area of the portrait). Or, inversely, pairing dark clothes with dark backgrounds ( the face become the lighter area of the portrait). In both scenarios the attention will be drawn to the face. This principle also apply if you want to enhance a model body because of its beauty, then you select a dark background with light clothes. But if the model is a large girl, you don't want to do that, instead, you select a background that matches her clothes and blend, softening her figure and drawing the attention to her face.

How about patterns and lines? The same principles apply! If you want to enhance your subject's clothes you use a pattern background when her clothes are plain or a plain background when her clothes have a pattern or texture. Of course, rules are made to be broken as long as you know what you are doing. For instance, you can use a pattern background with a pattern clothes to absolutely enhance the face.
The most important thing is to know these simple rules and use them at your discretion and artistic vision.






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