Are you struggling to choose the perfect portrait background for your photos? You’re not alone.
Backgrounds can make or break a portrait image, yet finding the right background to complement and enhance your portrait subjects is tricky, whether you’re working in the studio or outdoors.
That’s why, in this article, I’m going to share my favorite portrait background ideas. Some are moody, some are upbeat, some are dramatic – but they’re all professional. And you can use them to create consistently great portrait shots, no matter your level of experience.
Are you ready to take your portrait photography backgrounds to the next level? Let’s dive right in!
1. A busy or patterned background
If you’re just getting started with portrait photography, then I recommend you start with the busy background – that is, the kind of background you can find in your own home.
Look around your house and see if you can locate either of the following:
- An interesting patterned wall
- A cozy bedroom or living room scene
Unless you plan to shoot black and white portraits, you’ll need to pay careful attention to the colors in the background. Aim to include muted tones, and do your best to avoid bright, flashy colors that will draw the eye.
Then position your subject so that the background remains present but doesn’t become too distracting. This is the tough part; in fact, it’s okay to spend a few minutes really experimenting with your subject’s position, trying to get the best result. You can always tinker with the background if need be (e.g., by removing or covering up distracting items).
One tip: After you’ve taken a few photos, check your camera’s LCD. It’s often easier to identify problems with the background when viewing the screen.
Here are a couple of images that I took around my home:
For the image on the right, I found a cosy setting, then I carefully positioned my subject to avoid distracting elements. (Another tip: If your background is on the distracting side, you can always brighten up the subject with artificial lighting and let the background become darker and less noticeable.)
For the image on the left, I brought my subject away from the wall, then used a wide aperture to let the distractions blur away.
2. A dark textured background
If you’re looking to create moody portraits and you don’t have much in the way of a studio setup, then here’s a portrait background idea that guarantees great results:
Grab some dark, textured fabric, such as a burlap sack, a textured blanket, or even an item of clothing.
Then position it directly behind your subject.
Make sure the fabric is relatively monochrome (solid blues, greens, or browns work great). And ask your subject to dress in similarly muted clothing.
I recommend using a narrow aperture; you want the background texture to come through, as it’ll add a bit of interest to the portrait without overpowering the subject.
And feel free to experiment with your lighting setup. By positioning a light toward the front of the subject, you’ll get more background illumination, but by moving the light toward the side – and blocking the back portion with barn doors or a v-flat – you can make the subject pop while letting the background fade away.
For these next two images, I positioned my subject next to a window (on my right), then I added a simple, textured backdrop:
3. Brightly lit trees
If you like to shoot outdoors, then you have tons of available backgrounds, but this one is my go-to option:
A bright, well-lit set of trees.
A wall can work, too – the key is to find an area that is brighter than the subject but that isn’t so bright it gets blown out. (The sky is generally a bad pick for this reason, but if you’re struggling to find an alternative, you can always experiment with different sky backgrounds, too.)
One trick: Position your subject in the shade and use a wide aperture (such as f/1.8). This can literally make all the difference; it’ll give your subject a nice, soft, shaded effect, while the background is blown into a beautiful array of bokeh.
Also, make sure to expose for your subject’s face. The goal is to get the subject well exposed and the background slightly overexposed – though if your subject is feeling a bit dark, you can always use a bit of fill flash or a reflector for some pop.
One more thing: Avoid including dappled light on your subject’s face. The background itself can be dappled – trees with the light coming through looks amazing, as you can see in the shots below – but the light should never fall directly on the subject. Instead, keep the subject completely shaded and let the background do its thing:
4. A plain background
Plain portrait backgrounds aren’t the most interesting, sure – but when positioned behind a well-lit subject, they do a great job of complementing without overpowering.
Feel free to use plain backdrops of any color, though make to carefully match the subject’s clothing. I’d also recommend you avoid intense background colors; stick to muted, desaturated colors, as I did here, though you can certainly play around with different tones:
You will need to pay careful attention to your lighting. For the portraits featured above, I used a window light – coming from the left-hand side – and I placed a reflector on the right-hand side to bounce light back into the subjects’ faces.
You can also have fun with artificial lights. I’d recommend you start with some simple portrait lighting patterns, then level up from there.
These next portraits were shot in the client’s kitchen. The blue wall offered a beautiful plain backdrop, and I positioned my subjects by a window and skylight on the far right. I also added a bit of weak bounced fill flash on camera left.
Pro tip: When shooting portrait photos with a plain backdrop, match the lighting to the background. If the background is light, make sure the subjects are well lit. If the background is dark, dim the light and use a moodier lighting pattern.
Note how I brightened up the lighting for these next shots, as the subjects were positioned in front of a lighter backdrop (compared to the darker blue backdrop featured above):
5. A white seamless background
A pure white background is hugely popular, especially for editorial and fashion photography – but it does take a bit of finagling, so make sure you read the next few paragraphs carefully.
You see, if you want a blown-out white background, you can just hang white paper behind your subject and take a photo; if you take that approach, you’ll end up with a muddy light-gray or off-white background (which rarely looks good).
Instead, you need to light the background as well as your subject.
My recommendation? Start by hanging white paper (this could also be a sheet).
Then use an artificial light, positioned under the frame and pointed up, to illuminate the background. Dial in your ideal exposure, then brighten up the background light until it gives you a pure white effect.
Finally, bring in your subject and position them in front of the background light. Take a test shot (they should be a complete silhouette!), then add in lighting until you get the effect on the subject that you’re after.
In other words, you should first light the background, then – separately! – light the subject. Make sense?
6. A Photoshop background
If you’re after a beautiful textured background – like in the images displayed above – then you have two options:
You can purchase (or make) hand-painted textured canvas backgrounds, which takes a lot of time and/or money.
Or you can simply add a textured background in Photoshop.
To get the best results, I recommend positioning your subject in front of a gray backdrop. Make sure the backdrop is decently lit – that is, don’t let it become dark and shadowy – then shoot your subject the way you normally would.
You can then import your photo into Photoshop along with a texture. (If you don’t have any textures of your own, you can always buy some online or grab a few free textures off of Unsplash.)
Make sure the texture is in a separate layer above your portrait, then reduce the opacity and adjust the blend mode. Overlay is a good starting point, but you might also try Soft Light.
If all goes well, the texture will blend with the backdrop, and you’ll get a stunning result!
Another portrait background idea – which also relies on Photoshop – is to add sunflare. Just shoot your subject against a plain gray or white background, but position a flash off to the side to mimic window light.
Then, in Photoshop, add a bit of sunflare to give the shot a natural, window-lit look:
Portrait photography backgrounds: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should have plenty of portrait background ideas.
So find a subject. Pick one of these backgrounds. And go take some stunning portraits!
Now over to you:
Which of these background ideas do you plan to use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!