5 background tips for better portrait photography

Very often the background in photography is overlooked, but the background can make or break a photo. In fact, the background is actually almost as important as your subject. The light might be perfect, your subject might look great, but if the background in your photo is distracting, it draws attention away from the subject.

A good photography background, on the other hand, adds to the overall composition and feel of the photo. To take it one step further, a great background makes the subject look even better and the photo more appealing.

I don’t mean inserting a cool background into a photo with digital wizardry (aka Photoshop). I mean creating a great shot in camera. In other words, photographing a subject with the background in mind.

So, how do you photograph backgrounds to look good?

Use these few simple background photography guidelines to instantly improve your backgrounds and your photos with better photography composition.

Improve backgrounds to improve photography

1. Lines in photography backgrounds

Because lines are such strong graphical elements, they can be very distracting in a photo. 

They’re so strong, in fact, that lines are an important part of photography composition. But when it comes to background photography, we’re not talking about using lines. Quite the reverse. 

We’re looking at ways to reduce the distraction of lines in the background of photos. Including:

  • Horizontal lines
  • Vertical lines
  • Diagonal lines

Horizon in the the background

Even if you’re nowhere near built up areas, where lines are everywhere, there’s still one very important line to look out for and that’s the horizon.

If the horizon is in your photo, the most important composition rule is to make sure that it’s straight. A wonky horizon in the background is very distracting.

The next most important rule with horizons is to make sure that it’s not cutting through your subject’s head. It should be above or below their head.

How to change the horizon position in photography backgrounds

Change your perspective either up or down. It doesn’t need to be a big change and may just involve bending your knees slightly, or standing on something to raise you up a bit.

Or, try excluding the horizon altogether by getting really low or extra high.

Ensure horizon is straight in photos
The photo above is improved by cropping it to remove the horizon from the background – as in the photo below.

Exclude horizon to simplify photography background

Vertical lines in the background

Although there are many, the two most commonly occurring vertical lines that are distracting in photos are:

  • Trees
  • Poles

You don’t want poles or trees to be growing out of your subject.

Further reading: Using vertical lines in photography composition

How to avoid vertical lines in the background of photos 

The good news is that it’s the easiest fix in the world – move. Just take a step to the left or right so that the object is no longer growing out of your subject. So, either:

  • You move or
  • Get your subject to move


2. Busy photography backgrounds

If you notice that the background is distracting, take a moment to figure out what you can do to change it. The key to creating a good photograph is to slow down and think through every aspect of the image, starting with the background.

Further reading: Urban photoshoot tips for creative portrait photography in cities

Move away from the background

Often distracting elements can be hidden, such as a big red bin, by placing your subject in front of the distraction so that it’s not visible in the photo. If the distraction is too big to be hidden by your subject, move both yourself and your subject further away.

  • Backing up a bit will make the distraction smaller in the frame
  • Or, as with avoiding verticals intersecting your subject, sometimes you can just change your position slightly so that the background changes
  • If stepping to the side, or shooting higher or lower won’t work, consider getting closer and filling the frame with your subject
Beware of vertical lines in photography backgrounds
My camera settings remained the same for both photos at shutter speed of 1/1600, aperture f5, ISO 100 and focal length 190mm. The only difference between the two is that as the bike came closer to me and therefore further away from the background, the depth of field became shallower and the background blurred. As the bike came closer the distracting vertical lines were hidden behind him. I find the green traffic light distracting, so removing it would also improve the photo.

Blur the background

Blurring the background is used a lot in portrait photography. It’s a great way to separate the subject from the background and make it stand out.

The most popular way to blur the background is to use a wide aperture. But there are other ways too of blurring the background, or creating a shallow depth of field. You can:

  • Set your aperture to f4 and below
  • Use a long focal length
  • Move your subject away from the background
Simplify the background with shallow depth of field
The only difference between these two photos was the focal length. The first image taken was at a focal length of 98mm and the second at 200mm.

If your subject is in front of leafy vegetation with the light filtering through from behind, an added bonus of blurring the background will be the bokeh created by blurred out spectral highlights.

3. Light in photography backgrounds

Our eyes are drawn to the lightest part of the image, so if the background, or an element in the background of the photo, is lighter than the subject, this can be distracting.

Photographing against an entirely white background is of course different. Even then, though, if the the subject is not properly lit, the background becomes a distraction that overpowers the subject.

So, when photographing outdoors, keep an eye out for brighter elements in the background, such as:

  • Seagulls
  • Patches of light
  • Bright skies
  • People in light clothing

How to fix distracting light in photos

The best way to fix a distracting element in a photo is not to include it in the first place, if at all avoidable. Sometimes, however, it’s not possible.

I photograph at the beach a lot, so have often had to clone out a photobombing seagull in post processing.

The sky is different though. It doesn’t surprise you by suddenly appearing out of nowhere, so you can plan for it. Consider excluding it from the image if you can do nothing to avoid overexposing the sky.

If you’re including the sky in the photo, to avoid overexposing it, try to balance the exposure of your subject with the background. You can do this with:

Exclude the sky from the background of a photo
These two natural light photos were taken moments apart and you can see how much better it is when you exclude a washed out sky from the background for portrait photography.

Exclude washed out sky for better photos

4. Beware of bold colors in the background of photos

I mentioned earlier about red bins and white seagulls in the background of photos. 

Certain colors demand attention and draw our eyes, and so become distracting background elements.

  • Red and blue carry a heavier visual weight and so demand our attention
  • Yellow and green are lighter and therefore less distracting
  • White is distracting, because, our eyes go to the lightest part of an image

Fixing distracting background colors

If you can’t avoid or hide a distracting color, or you haven’t noticed it until you get home and load your photos to the computer, you can either:

  • Desaturate bright colors and darken them
  • If possible remove the distracting element in post processing
Avoid distracting colors in photography backgrounds
When I took this photo I knew that the red bin was going to be a problem and decided that, rather than not use the location, I’d alter the bin color in post processing

5. Choosing a location for the background

When photographing outdoors, it makes sense that choosing the right location, with a good background for photography, will make a huge difference to the photo.

For example, you wouldn’t photograph a young child against an industrial background, unless you wanted to make a statement by juxtaposing a sweet child against cold industry.

Sometimes the location has been chosen specifically for the shoot, but not everything about the background works. When this is the case, use all the camera techniques mentioned above to ensure good background photography and then, if necessary turn to Photoshop (or similar) to help out.

I mention Photoshop as a last resort, because, as I always say, it’s best to try to get as much right in camera, including the background. However, as the story below the next two photos demonstrates, it’s not always possible to have a perfect background for photos.

Remove unavoidable distractions in the background
I was booked to photograph a proposal at a castle. This lovely couple flew from the US to the UK purely for the proposal…although she thought they were just having a holiday and I was there to photograph their trip to the castle. We’d planned everything ahead of time. I’d scouted the location beforehand, discussed it with the staff of the castle and got permission to photograph it. The only thing we couldn’t control was the tourists, so we planned it for the quietest time of the day. We set up his phone on a tripod as though they were doing a Facebook live to everyone at home and I stood just behind it ready to capture their moment. Later I removed the people far in the background, as well as the little fence and white flowers.

Further reading: Portrait backgrounds – 4 photography mistakes to avoid

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about background photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography background tips have helped you to understand how to photograph backgrounds, share that too.

3 thoughts on “5 background tips for better portrait photography”

  1. Hi Jane, very interesting piece, well explained and therefore easy to understand by the ‘dummy’ with a camera 🙂


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