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Choosing the best photo background for a portrait session can be tricky. There are many factors to consider when choosing a color such as clothing, skin tone, hair color and more, but the thing to focus on is creating contrast. The contrast between the face and the background draws attention to your subject. It is important that the backdrop isn’t too close to the color of your subject’s clothing or skin, but it also shouldn’t be so bright as to detract attention from the focal point of the photo: your subject’s face. There are a variety of tricks that you can use to select the perfect photo background and ensure that your subject remains the focal point of your photograph. Here are a few things to consider before shooting your next portrait session:

1. Start with the Subject

Let the clothing and subject lead your decision making process. The lighting and backdrops can be adjusted to match the subject’s skin tone or outfit but as the photographer, you can’t generally change their clothing once they’ve arrived. Start with that as your basis and build from there instead of building the shot and having your subject arrive in clothing that completely derails your initial concept.

2. Create the Highest Contrast Between Subject & Backdrop

Your subject’s clothing and the background fill the majority of the frame. So, to make sure they don’t overpower your subject’s face, you want the point of highest contrast to be between the subject’s face and the background instead of between the backdrop and the subject’s clothing. If there is too much contrast between the subject’s clothing and the backdrop it can pull attention away from the subject’s face. For example, if you photograph a person on a white background who is wearing black, the contrast between the two will be so great that it will distract your eye away from the subject’s face. If instead you have a subject with a white shirt on a white backdrop, the primary point of contrast will be between the background and the subject. This will help to draw your eye to the key area of the photo.

Matching Your Background to Your Subject

3.Separate the Subject from Their Clothing

It is also important that the subject is separated from their clothing. This can be a little bit more difficult to achieve because the clothing will likely be on the same focal plane as the subject’s face and so it will inherently be similar in terms of detail and depth. If the subject is wearing something that is far from their natural skin tone in color, it is easier to work with. However if they do wear something that is close to their skin tone, the background color should serve to further separate the skin tone of your subject form the color of their clothing. This may seem counter intuitive, but if you make the background a similar shade somewhere in between the skin tone and shade of the clothing, this can help to give a little bit more separation.

Matching Your Background to Your Subject

4. Apply a Gaussian Blur to Identify Points of Contrast

If you get to the editing room and realize you have a few different options but aren’t sure which is best, use a Gaussian blur in Photoshop. Sometimes, I find that simply blurring my vision when I look at an image allows me to clearly see where the strongest points of contrast are. However, if you don’t find that useful, apply a Gaussian blur filter to the images and see which parts stand out most based on color and contrast.

5. Avoid Red

Red is a very difficult color to manage, especially with lighter skin tones. Do what you can to avoid it. I’d also recommend avoiding anything too similar to the skin color of your subject. But, as I mentioned before, you don’t always have control over what your subject wears.

Matching Your Background to Your Subject

6. Add a Vignette

Adding a vignette to your photo is another way to help direct your viewer’s eye to the subject. If there is a light point directly behind the head of your subject, this helps to create contrast. If the edges of the photo are darker for a low-key image, there will inherently be less visual contrast and so your eyes will naturally be drawn to the center, where your subject will be. The same applies for a white background, but the center should be the darkest point of the photograph and the edges the brightest. Vignettes can be created using lighting or a Photoshop filter.

7. Break All the Rules

Yes, these are guidelines that should help you, but they are, ultimately, just that. Allow yourself a little creative wiggle room and experiment.

Happy shooting!

Megan Youngblood

Megan Youngblood is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer with roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about art, technology, all things counter-culture, and the occasional auto-biographical musing. Her writing has appeared at Hyperallergic, The Creators Project, Stocktown, Bowery Boogie, and, of course, here. For more on Megan, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.


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