Portrait backgrounds – 4 photography mistakes you can easily avoid

We can get so hung up on the technical details of photography that we sometimes forget to consider the biggest aspect of a photo – portrait backgrounds.

These four background photography tips will improve your portrait photography before you even touch your camera.

They’re relevant for beginner photographers and experienced photographers alike.

We all forget the basics from time to time and end up making these common photography mistakes with portrait backgrounds.

Background photography tips

1. Litter in the background of photos

It’s a sad fact, but where there are people, there’s litter. So you need to become eagle eyed when it comes to spotting litter in the background of portraits.

Litter is very distracting, especially if it’s white, silver or a dominant color like red. Our eyes are drawn to the lightest part of an image and warm colors are visually heavy.

Further reading: 6 essential tips for creating balance in composition

Not just the big, obvious items either. Very often small things like cigarette butts can go unnoticed in the background of a photo, until you have your images on the computer. Then they become glaringly obvious and it’s all you can see when you look at the image.

So you’re left with the choice of spending time in Photoshop removing items that you could so easily have cleared before taking the shot, or having a distracting, potentially ugly portrait background.

Of course, if your image is intended to have a gritty feel, you might not mind litter in the background, but it certainly wouldn’t work for a family photo, wedding portrait or even a holiday snap of your kids playing outdoors.

2. Text in photography backgrounds

Our eyes are drawn to text.

Humans are curious and if we see text, we want to read it. We might not actively think about it, but text is a natural pull for our eyes and therefore a distraction. So, unless it’s relevant to the photo, avoid text in photography backgrounds.

This includes graffiti.

If you want to include the graffiti of an urban location in your background to suit the feel of a photo, first make sure to check all the graffiti first. The last thing you want is to discover F-bombs in a teen portrait background.

I speak with experience here. It was so annoying to have to spend ages getting rid of it in Photoshop when all I needed to do at the time of the shoot was change my position slightly or choose a different background.

mistakes in portrait backgrounds

3. Eyes in a portrait background

Speaking of human behavior, our eyes cannot resist another eye.

We’re drawn to look at an eye that’s looking at us, even if it’s out of focus, which actually makes it worse. Our eyes end up bouncing between the in focus subject, because we’re also naturally drawn to the sharp area of a photo, and the out of focus eye in the background. This becomes quite unsettling.

If unsettling is the vibe you’re going for, that’s great. Go ahead.

A portrait idea that springs to mind is your subject in the foreground looking worried or scared with a threatening character in the background looking to camera. (Gives me the creeps just thinking about it.)

The eye doesn’t even have to belong to a person.

Even a picture of an eye, or eyes, in a portrait background will be enough to drag our attention away from the subject. I was recently on a Zoom meeting with someone who had a drawing of an eye in the background and I kept finding myself looking at it. I looked at it so much that I can actually picture it now.

Generally we photograph portraits with blurred backgrounds to some extent or other, so make sure that if there’s anyone in the background of the photo, they’re not looking to camera.

The same goes for somebody in the foreground – if they’re out of focus, make sure they’re not looking to camera.

4. Light areas in portrait backgrounds

Either avoid or embrace light areas in the background of photos, depending on where the light area is.

Avoid light areas

As I mentioned at the start of this article, our eyes are drawn to the lightest part of a photo. So if part of the background is the lightest area of the photo, it will distract from the subject.

Embrace light areas

Either change your position to alter the portrait background and exclude the light, distracting area or position your subject in front of the light area. This then makes the light area work in your favor.

Background photography tips

There’s a lot more to portrait backgrounds than mistakes to avoid. Find out how to make the most of backgrounds in photos here…

Further reading: 5 background photography tips for better photos

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