Background for portrait photography – An Introduction

Backgrounds assume a critical importance in portrait photography. They can set the mood of a photo or break it just as easily if you are not careful what you put at the back. No two types of photography would work with the same background element. That is why it is important to know when to use which. Today, we are going to discuss about background for portrait photography. But along the way we will also discuss elements of lighting and certain composition aspects as well.

Portrait photography is a very interesting genre. It is a profitable one too. The tricks you master can be repeated in a wide variety of other photographic genres. This includes wedding, engagement, environmental portraits to name a few. The same technique, when modified, can be used to shoot flowers, macro and so on. Truly, if you master the techniques of portrait photography you have a lot to play with. And make money with.

Different types of background for portrait photography

Background for portrait photography can be both natural and artificial. You could use the trees in your local park as the background for your portraitures. Just as well, you can use a brick wall. You can also use a book shelf to produce a nice background for an indoor environment portrait. The list can go on. These are all examples of naturally available and easy to use background for portrait photography.

background for portrait photography

Then there are artificial backgrounds as well. These are what we call backdrops. They come in all colors, styles and types. The most common types are the white and the black ones. But of course you can splurge and find something a bit more exotic. A nice flower bed perhaps, a beautiful pathway littered with leaves in Fall or even a haunted house. You are limited only by your imagination here.

Shooting portraits for a fashion label? Use brightly lit backgrounds such as a brick wall, or a white backdrop with a yellow upholstered sofa and shoot with abundant light. Shooting a slightly low key high contrast model portrait? Use a darker background like a staircase or an alley with a single light and matching themed clothing. The light need to be very close to the subject so that it is contrasty. Need a portrait for a clothing label. Use a white background with at least three lights. One as your main light, set up 45 ˚ from the camera high over the model’s head, the other as the fill light set up at about 180 ˚ from the key light and the third will work as the background light, lighting up the background.

Style of shooting

Of course the style of shoot you have planned would have a bearing on the background. You can’t have a black background for a high key portrait photography set-up. Neither can you have a bright white background for a contrasting portrait. We will discuss this in greater detail in the following paragraphs. Style of shoot will also determine whether you need a natural background or an artificial backdrop. Of course this would also determine the location of the shoot.

On the other hand, natural light photographers would always look for natural background for portrait photography. Studio backdrops are not the thing for them. They would try to find matching backgrounds for the type of light that they are shooting in.


Thus we come to the next most important aspect of a portrait photography – lighting. As has been stressed above, lighting alone can change the mood of an image. Evidently, when you need a high contrast effect you will require a darker background. A darker background will absorb a lot of light and therefore the image will become more contrasty. Then again, the kind of lighting also influences the kind of background that you need.

The inverse square law and its implications on backgrounds

While on the topic of lighting you need to have a good understanding of the inverse square law. The inverse square law is one of the most fundamental rules in photography. Though I must also add that the rule far transgresses the domain of photography.

Here, however, we shall limit ourselves to the use of the rule in photography. The rule, simply states, that when we double the distance between the source of light and the subject, the intensity of light reduces by a factor of square of that distance. That means if you move the light source from 1’ to 2’, the intensity of light drops by 1/2² or ¼. In other words the amount of light drops down to 25% of what the subject received at 1’.

The law has an interesting implication when it comes to shooting with backgrounds, especially black and white ones. When you place your subject very close to your background, say a white one, due to the huge drop in light it would appear gray instead of white! If you move the subject and the light further away from the background it will turn dark gray if not completely black.

Some portrait photography scenarios – Professional business portraits

professional portrait backgrounds

Professional business portraits work best when they are well lit and are shot with a natural background. An office environment would serve as a good background for portrait photography. You can use a boardroom or the personal office of the person being photographed or even the parking lot of the building with the corporate logo in the background.

Use at least two lights, or use a large natural light source like a window and compliment it with an artificial light. If shooting indoors, and the background isn’t sufficiently lit with ambient light, then use an artificial light to blend it in. The background takes up an important position in the image.

Children portraits

My preferred place for photographing children is either outdoors or in their room. The idea is that they be in their ‘zone’ when they are photographed. It always results in the best portraits. The background for portrait photography of children is therefore entirely natural, either beautiful flowers or trees at the park or the elements in their room. Personally I like outdoors to indoors.

professional children portraits

I don’t really have to worry too much about lighting when I am photographing outdoors. As long as it is not mid-day. I would also like to experiment with the golden hour and the blue hour.

Family portraits

The same goes for family portraits. I would prefer to have a natural background for portrait photography involving families. A park or a bed of beautiful flowers, a natural scene looks a lot better with family portraits then the stiff environment of indoors. The soft golden hour light, with a washed out background is perfect for such requirements. I would even incorporate lens flare if it is easily managed. If not I will attempt a lens flare during post-processing. Then again, if the interiors are really good with an abundant supply of light, why not use that as well?

professional family portraits

Maternity portraits

I am big fan of outdoor natural lighting. And that gives me a lot of idea to work with. When it comes to maternity portraits, I love to mix the beautiful natural light with the elements that you would expect with a baby. Tiny pair of shoes, tiny clothing, a cot, pillows and even ribbons and bells. I prefer a nice out of focus background for maternity portraits, where the background melts away and isolates the subject, the expecting mother and her belly and any props that I might choose to use.

maternity portraits

Make a number of exposures. Experiment with the props and then shoot without them. Bring in the father in the shot. If there are older siblings they can form an important part of a family portrait. I wouldn’t try to force too much posing in these photos. They need to be simple and beautiful, while shot in beautiful natural light.

Some tips on focusing

Along with the background that you choose, there are other aspects that you can look into as well. One of them being how you use depth of field in your images. With traditional black and white backgrounds depth of field isn’t that important as they would appear solid regardless of the depth of field. But when you use patterns you have to be careful.

Ideally, when using a patterned background for portrait photography select a wider aperture so that the background is slightly out of focus. The idea is to make them slightly blurred out so that the fact that they are not natural can be obscured. You will also have to arrange the lighting according to the background (backdrop) you have.

Ben Novoselsky

CEO and Founder at
Entrepreneur, geek, photo enthusiast.
Ben Novoselsky

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