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How To Deal With An Ugly Portrait Background

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

One defining factor that controls the success of a portrait photo is the background. Here are some great ways I’ve found to deal with an ugly portrait background.

The best ways to deal with an ugly portrait background include creative composition, shallow depth of field, increasing the dynamic range of the scene to significantly lighten or darken the background and through the use of post processing applications like Adobe Photoshop.

Let’s examine each of these options so that, by the end of this post, you’ll be able create great portrait photos even when faced with an ugly background.

Can You Imagine A More Ugly Portrait Background?

I was on a self-motivated photo walk in Kolkata, India which, by chance, lead me alongside a railway line and onto a suburban train platform where I noticed this lovely child.

After gaining permission from the mother to photograph the child I simply escorted the young boy a few meters and asked him to stand in front of the yellow and green painted wall.

Actually it was a toilet block and his mother wondered why I wanted to use it as a background.

I explained that, when photographed correctly, the colors of the wall would provide a beautiful, positive background for the image and that it was unlikely that anyone who saw the photo would recognize that the background was, in fact, the outside wall of a toilet block.

How To Explore An Ugly Background

One way to deal with an ugly background in portrait photography is to seek out interesting elements and visual relationships which can then be explored in the photographic composition.

This is achieved through juxtaposition where you compare and contrast areas of interest within the scene, including those in the background or between the subject and the background.

Yellow and green are the colors of one of Australia's alternate national flags: the one with the boxing kangaroo that you sometimes see at international sporting events.

While I made that connection instantly I wouldn’t expect other people to, other than on a subliminal level.

However there were some elements of composition within the background that I was able to use to my advantage to create an interesting and visually dynamic image.

  • Bright and vivid colors
  • Contrasting warm and cool colors
  • Contrasting sharp and defocused areas
  • Contrasting smooth and texture areas

Not wanting to obscure the wall I asked the child to move forward and away from the centre of the frame to add interest and a degree of visual tension to the image.

I then positioned myself at an angle to the wall so as to introduce into the composition the perspective of a receding background.

As a consequence a more expansive image with a greater sense of three dimensional space resulted.

I’d say that the background has now become almost as important as the young boy in this image. The success of the picture is now dependant upon the interplay between subject and background and between different parts of the background.


Finding Potential In Ugly Portrait Backgrounds

Can you see how the repeating nature of the smooth green and textured yellow sections within the background introduce notions of repetition and pattern into the image?

While texture is an important element of composition, particularly in black and white photos, most folks don’t think enough about repetition and pattern when creating or viewing inspirational photos.

But this really straightforward portrait is a good example of how the addition of a few essential elements of composition can really lift an image above that of a mere snapshot.

And it’s not hard to do. I doubt the whole process of greeting the young boy and his mother, asking permission to make a few photos, positioning the child and creating the image took more than a few minutes.

It’s actually quite a structured image, yet it looks quite candid. Part of the reason for that is the speed at which the entire process was conducted.

The ultimate success of a portrait is usually dependent upon the following criteria:

  • An interesting subject.
  • Subject position within the frame
  • Subject expression and body language.
  • Eyes that are well lit and visible.
  • Eye contact with the camera and, by extension, the viewer.
  • Lighting that’s appropriate to the subject and to the mood or theme explored in the image.
  • Good composition, including making the most of color relationships within the frame.

Embracing Colorful Backgrounds

Colourful backgrounds have long been used in studio based photography. I prefer those found outside the studio, in nature and in the urban environment, as they seem more authentic.

I met this young woman collecting tickets at an historic tourist venue in Beijing, China. It was the middle of winter and bitterly cold, but, as the saying goes, I liked the cut of her jib.

More specifically I liked the color and texture of the golden brown fringed hood she was wearing and how it both served to frame her face and contrast with the color and lack of texture in the background.

It’s funny looking back at it now but, at the time, I also liked the sense of mystery that the now ubiquitous face mask brought to the image.

Actually when we met she was standing in front of a very nondescript and bland, gray colored wall. She looked both cold and bored so, after asking her permission to make a photo, I simply directed her to stand in front of the green colored wall that was literally just a few steps away.

Now illuminated by a lovely soft light, her eyes are visible and an interested, yet pensive expression emerges.

Add to that the contrast in color and texture between her fur lined hood and the smooth, deep green colored background and a very photogenic image results.

But none of that would have come into being if I hadn’t followed this simple approach:

  • Take an interest in the world around you and keep an eye out for interesting and beautiful subject matter.
  • Ask permission to make some photos.
  • Take control and guide the subject to where they need to be so that you can create a great photo.

While I hope you like the photo and enjoy the story about how it was made it’s also worth spending a few moments exploring the motivation that made the image possible.

I’m motivated to create beautiful, life affirming photos that celebrate the beauty of our world and its people with an ever wider audience.

With that mind it’s not surprising that I wouldn’t let a potentially ugly background get in the way of creating a beautiful, life affirming portrait.

Developing a clear idea about why it is you make the photos you do is important as it allows you to overcome many of the roadblocks that adversely affect most other photographers.

It’s because I have a clear reason for making the photos I do that I’ve been able to create a mindset where there’s little time for doubt and shyness preventing me from creating photos.

I recognize the importance of asking permission to make this kind of photo. It’s the right thing to do and I want to ensure I’m doing the right think.

It shouldn’t surprise you that my approach to photography is based around the notion of making photos rather than taking photos.

But because I have a strongly defined reason for traveling and photographing portraits I have no problem approaching strangers, or their guardians, for permission to make photos.

This kind of mindset is essential to overcoming the barriers we create for ourselves that cause anxiety and, as a result, block our creativity by lowering the confidence with which we approach our photography.

It’s my hope these posts will motivate you to create beautiful portraits of strangers you meet on your own travel photography adventures, whether at home or abroad.

Shallow Depth Of Field Fixing Ugly Portrait Backgrounds

The easiest and often the best approach to dealing with an ugly portrait background is to de-emphasize it through blur. Selective focus and shallow depth of field is what’s required to achieve this result.

By focusing upon the subject's eye (usually the one closest to the camera) and employing a shallow depth of field you'll be able to place attention on the subject while, at the same time, turning an ugly and potentially distracting background into something quite beautiful.

I made this image of four time world boxing champion Kostya Tszyu in an alleyway in inner city Melbourne, Australia. We’d made a few images in a cramped and pretty uninspiring studio before moving outside into the alley where possibilities for interesting images began to emerge.

To add some extra emotion to the image I’ve desaturated the color in Kostya’s skin and selected a cooler white balance for the rest of the image.

White balance is an incredibly important tool for the photographer. I think about it literally every time I make photos. If you’re looking to master white balance you’ll love the extensive guide I’ve written on the topic.

Pro Tip

A handy tip to remember when looking to create a shallow depth of field is that, while a relatively wide aperture (e.g., f/4) will certainly create a shallow depth of field, sometimes it's not enough and the background is still a little too dominant.

The trick then is to reduce the relative distance between the camera and the subject compared to that between the subject and the background. You can achieve this in the following ways:

  • Move in closer to reduce the camera to subject distance and/or
  • Increase the distance between the subject and the background

You’ll be amazed at how powerful those two simple tips are. Frankly it’s how you can obtain a $3,000 look from a $500 or cheaper lens.

Dynamic Range Can Fix An Ugly Portrait Background


By changing the position from which you make your photo and/or by moving your subject you can position them against a brighter background.

If the background is significantly brighter than the subject the dynamic range of the scene will be such that details within the background will not be recorded.

By situating your subject against a brightly lit sky or a very bright wall, as I’ve done in this image of a young boy in an orphanage in Chennai, India, you should be able to achieve the relatively high degree of dynamic range required.

If you’re indoors on a bright, sunny day you could also try positioning your subject against a window pane with a bright sky background.

So long as you expose for an accurate rendering of your subject the background will record much lighter and with far less detail.

Of course in a composition where the background is substantially brighter than the subject the subject of your photo will often record as a silhouette.

To prevent that from happening there are a number of ways by which you can control the brightness of your subject.

Spot metering on the subjects face will go someway towards ensuring your subject is recorded appropriately. Though that depends upon the brightness of the face in question.

My way of working is to manually adjust the camera’s light meter.

This technique works brilliantly on today’s mirrorless cameras which, unlike traditional film SLR or digital DSLR cameras, provide real time feedback on how the image will photograph through the camera’s viewfinder.

However, if you’re not used to working on the Manual exposure mode, you can adjust your camera’s Exposure Compensation control on either the Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Program modes.

Just remember, if you’re not using a mirrorless camera, you’ll likely need to repeat this process several times before you achieve optimal subject brightness.

Similarly, by positioning your subject against a substantially darker background and adjusting your camera's exposure to ensure the subject is recorded appropriately, you can cause the background to render much darker than it appears in reality.

By effectively underexposing the background, in relation to the subject, unattractive and distracting details in the background will disappear as they're rendered very dark or even black in the photo.

Positioning your subject in gentle light against a much darker background (e.g., darkly painted wall; or a deeply shaded bush or stand of trees) should produce the relatively high level of dynamic range you'll need.

Illuminating the subject's face and ensuring that they’re positioned against a darker and relatively distant background also works.

That's because the amount of light reaching the subject from the light source (e.g., flash, window light) is proportionally far greater than the amount of light that reaches the background.

Photo geeks might recognize this fall off in light from their high school science days. It's referred to as the Inverse Square Law.

Ugly Portrait Backgrounds In Outdoor Photography

Take a look at this portrait of a young man against an old, beat up shipping container. The color of the container was tan, while the subject’s jacket was brown.

But those colors didn’t quite suit the sombre mood expressed in the subject’s face.

Given the mood, the tonal contrast in his T-shirt and the texture in his hair and jacket a black and white rendering seemed appropriate.

It’s amazing how much quieter and more subdued the image has become. And rather than the color of the shipping container drawing attention away from the subject, the repetition of the container’s metal siding provides a relaxing, wave like movement into the background.

Working With Ugly Portrait Backgrounds In Nature

Here’s a photo I took of architect and artist Tony Jackson at Diamond Beach in Iceland.

The light was actually very bright when I made this photo so I seated Tony in an area where the light intensity and contrast was slightly more subdued.

The background rocks were large and powerful. I wanted to reference that power without allowing the rocks to take control of the image. If they did the background could easily distract attention away from Tony.

Fortunately, through careful placement of Tony within a relatively small section of the rocky surrounds, I’ve been able to represent the background as a series of similarly sized and shaped rocks.

The result is a well balanced image that speaks as much about the notions of cohesion and harmony as it does about the subject photographed.

Again, a black and white rendering has helped as it emphasizes the similarities of the shapes, textures and tonalities within the rocks. It’s helped to convert a potentially distracting background into subject matter that’s of almost equal importance to the primary subject.

Artificial Painted Backgrounds In Portrait Photography

Commonly employed in a professional or home studio environment an artificial background can be useful in portrait photography.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve worked in any kind of photography studio. What’s more painted backgrounds just aren’t relevant to the way most enthusiast level photographers make their pictures.

Nonetheless, an artificial background does allow you to control the background in a portrait photo and, thereby, eliminate distracting and ugly backgrounds.

Just be aware that, in many cases, a painted background does tend to take the subject depicted out of their environment and, as such, changes the reality of the photograph.

Over the years I’ve seen some really interesting bodies of work where studio lighting and/or artificial backgrounds have been used in the creation of outdoor portraits of indigenous people.

This approach goes back a long way, possibly starting with American photographer Edward S. Curtis and his documentary glass plate photographs of native American peoples.

I respect the effort and ingenuity involved in creating these often highly stylized portraits.

These days this style of work tends to be quite commercial in character, often existing somewhere in-between fashion and fine art documentary photography.

I suspect some folk would consider it be somewhat artificial, though that’s not to say it isn’t beautiful.

However, it needs to be said that some folk are quite critical of this approach to photographing indigenous peoples in our post colonial world.

What was seen as appropriate in years gone by can now be seen to be demeaning and insensitive by contemporary standards.

You might see these images as authentic and a great way to honor the cultural authenticity of those depicted. Alternatively, you might see this images as being culturally inappropriate by contemporary standards of representation.

Whether you’re honoring an old and rich tradition or seeing people different to yourself in a way that justifies your own notions of superiority is central to this issue.

Ultimately it's up to each of us to determine what we like and what we consider to be appropriate. Nonetheless it's good to be aware of other points of view and to be open to change.

After careful consideration we should all arrive at our own views and convictions which are well informed and respectful of those we photograph.

It’s for this reason that I often talk about why we photograph being more important than what we photograph or how we go about doing so.

Changing An Ugly Portrait Background In Photoshop

These days it’s possible to make pretty substantial changes to the background of a portrait photo in a post processing application like Adobe Photoshop.

You can selectively lighten, darken or change the hue, saturation or luminosity of a background far easier today than was possible in the days of analogue, film based photography.

What’s more you can replace a background with one that’s more suitable to the feeling or mood you want to explore in a particular photo.

It’s not the way I like to work, but it’s a legitimate option that, in many cases, can be successfully achieved with a medium level of skill.

It’s true to say that, in days gone by, not all great photographers were master darkroom printers. It therefore follows that it’s certainly possible to make great photos today without using applications like Lightroom or Photoshop.

Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that post processing applications provide incredible amounts of technical control and creative freedom to photographers.

My advice is to learn to make great photos, consistently and efficiently with your camera. When you’re able to do so it’s certainly worthwhile exploring the creative potential applications like Lightroom and Photoshop offer.

Conclusion

While this post covers a variety of techniques and approaches by which you can deal with an ugly portrait background, perhaps the first thing that’s needed is to pay more attention to the background before you place your subject in front of it.

Think about the appropriateness of the background to your photo, both from a technical point of view and as a way to help you explore narrative or story telling in your photo.

The right choice of background can help you control the dynamic range and exposure within your image and also create the right environment in which to place your subject.

Just beware of the potential of an overly detailed or distracting background drawing attention away from the primary subject of your portrait photo.

When it comes to portrait photos that rely on a pleasing likeness of the subject depicted, a nondescript background often works best.

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