When shooting portraits on location, choosing the right background is critical, and just like anything in photography, there is no one size that fits all.
Let’s break them down into different scenarios. I’ll use examples for each one. We go from easy-to-follow ones to trick ones that sometimes rely on some luck.
Choose brighter backgrounds for dark hair or dark outfit.
Choose darker backgrounds for brighter hair and light-colored outfits.
Choose clean and neutral backgrounds for someone who’s wearing outfits with vivid colors or with busy patterns.
Here are some tricky ones. When your subject has dark hair and wearing brighter-colored outfits or bright hair with darker outfits, choosing backgrounds that compliment both.
Notice her dark hair is against the brighter sky. I also added a strobe to light up the wood frame (the part just above her) just so she’s standing out more. Her outfit is against the parts of the background that are in the shadow. Part of the outfit on camera left is against a brighter background but it is illuminated by the sun, so there is still enough contrast.
For this one, notice that her bright hair is against the dark window and her black outfit is against the bright couch that is under direct sunlight.
Same idea for this one.
And this one.
You can’t apply this on every single portrait photograph, but try to do it. Always check the background before you click. Look at the whole image instead of only focusing on your subject. Keep practicing and make this second nature to you.
Sometimes we got stuck in this situation that there are not many choices and the only option is our subject blending in with the background. Other than using lens blur, we can also use lighting to separate them. The lighting could be either available light or strobe.
Examples of using the sun as a rim light to separate the subject from the background.
Examples of using a strobe to separate the subject from the background.
Example of using both sun and strobe to separate the subject from the background.
We are not painters who can put whatever background they can imagine around their subjects. We are always trying our best to create what we feel through our photography but the cameras will just record what they see, so remember to choose your background wisely. That’s it.
Take your camera out and start playing with your background. Make this part of the training of your photographer eyes. You might find portrait photography is even more fun than you thought, especially when you’re shooting on location.
About the author: Kyle Cong is a portrait photographer based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, and serving the Greater Vancouver area. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Cong’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.