8 Steps to Choosing the Right Background

Choosing the right background can be an opportunity or a challenge for photographers. On the one hand, choosing the right background can turn a would-be “snapshot” into a beautiful portrait. It can put your subject into context and provide a beautiful backdrop by which to highlight your model. On the other hand, choosing the wrong background can distract and overwhelm your subject. Before you take another photo, here are 8 steps you should follow when choosing a background for your next photo session.

8 Steps To Choosing The Right Background

1. Remove Distractions

A common mistake when shooting portraits is that something in the background (typically a tree) looks as if it is sticking out of a person’s head. You can avoid this problem by checking your background before you hit the shutter release button.

Actually, this step goes beyond tree limbs. When scanning the background of your shots, look for any colors that don’t fit the rest of the image, competing lines, people that may not belong, etc. You’ll save yourself some time in the editing room if you remove those distractions before you take the photo.

2. Move Your Subject or Change Your Shooting Angle

This one is simple, ask your model to take a step to the left or right. Such an easy move can often move that distraction right out of the frame.

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Can’t move your subject? Then move yourself and shoot from another angle. Get down low and make the sky your background or position yourself over your subject so that the ground becomes your background.

3. Shoot Wide Open

One of the easiest ways to turn any background into the “right” background is by shooting wide open. You don’t actually have to shoot wide open, but you should use a wide aperture. Remember that the smaller the number, the wider the aperture; and the wider your aperture the more bokeh (blur) you can expect in your background.

If you’re not sure how to achieve this effect, just switch your camera into aperture priority mode and experiment with various f/stops. Anything under f/4 should achieve a nice amount of blur. We especially like to use f/2.8 or lower.

4. Keep Your Distance

A common mistake when choosing backgrounds is to place your subject right on top of whatever it is that you want in your background. For example, you see an awesome barn that you think would make the perfect backdrop for your photos. The untrained eye might position your children right at the barn, allowing little more than the texture of the wall to be in the background.

While this can make for an interesting shot, you miss out on the entire barn if you place your subject against the barn wall. Instead, pull your subject 25, 50, even 100 feet away from the barn so that the barn can truly be in the background. Then apply step #4 to throw the background out of focus. 

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Another way to achieve that beautiful blurred background effect is to use a lens with a long focal length. A longer focal length can provide a narrower depth of field, which ultimately means that your subject will consume more of the frame.

5. Fill the Frame

If you’re having trouble choosing a background, take a step back and reconsider your approach. Whether you’re in your backyard or at the beach, you can “fill the frame” such that there is no question who’s the star of the show. Be sure to get up close or use a zoom lens to tightly frame your shot. This will completely remove any distractions that may have been in the background.

6. Use Lines and Textures

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We love the idea of using lines and texture as a simple backdrop for your photos. However, be wary of competing lines. If your subject is wearing a striped shirt and your background also has strong lines, it’s possible that all those lines will compete against one another.

7. Make Your Own

While the great outdoors provides a plethora of background options, oftentimes the weather (among other reasons) may cause you to change plans. In particular, it can be rather difficult to shoot outside during the winter months.

Consider creating a home studio where you can change your backdrop and move things around to best suit the vision you have for your photos.  We especially love using seamless paper. It comes in a variety of colors and can easily be thrown away if it gets messed up.

8. Don’t be Afraid to Edit

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There are a number of ways that you can remove distractions from the background using photo editing software. If you’ve gone through each of the above steps and still need to clean up the background, post-processing is a great option. However, unless you are an expert photo editor, we don’t recommend shooting with the intent to remove something in post-processing. It is much easier to remove something on location than in post-processing.

There are a number of great locations that will make great backgrounds for your photos. Sometimes, it just takes a little bit of work on your end to turn them into the RIGHT background.

For more photography tutorials, check out 10 Tips for Photographing Landscapes.

Photo Credit: Ashley Sisk and St. John Photography.



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Ashley Sisk
Ashley Siskhttp://ashleysisk.com
Ashley lives in North Carolina with her husband, two kids and Kitty Paw. She’s a work-from-home mom with a natural light photography business and a passion for sharing everything she knows. Since leaving the corporate world, she now spends her time trying to get through elementary school with her daughter, chasing her firefighter loving little boy, writing and finding ways to enjoy life. You can find her on Facebook, Google + or on her website.

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