Poseur at Palazzo Prulli during the Venice Carnival
Poseur at Palazzo Prulli during the Venice Carnival

The importance of the background

Whenever I shoot portraits, I always look at the background first. This is essential to the success of the image.  Here are a few things to look out for:

Colour: Complimentary colours are important if the subject is to stand out. Put the subject against a background that is either the same colour or a colour that clashes with the subject, it just won’t work.

Framing: Doors, windows, arches or anything that creates a frame work help focus the eye on the subject.

Clean backgrounds. Avoid busy, cluttered backgrounds which will confuse the eye and take the attention away from the subject.

Depth of field: If you want to place the image in context, then a large depth of field in required so the background remains in focus, at least enough to be recognisable. So shoot at f/11 or higher. Be careful that there are no distractions however. If the background isn’t that interesting, then shoot with a shallow depth of field. So shoot at f/4 or lower if your lens allows.

Avoid contrast: Bright sunlight can be tricky to work with. If the subject is in the shade and the background is in the sun, the bright background will be distracting. One solution is to use flash so that the subject is lit as brightly as the background. Or simply choose an evenly lit location, either in the shade or the sun or put the subject in the sun and use a dark shady background. Shade works best for portraits, so cloudy days are ideal. This creates uniform light conditions and all the detail is preserved.

If you are in a beautiful location such as Venice, then try to include the background as much as possible. A full frame portrait of a beautiful costume with a very shallow depth of field can look fantastic but could be taken anywhere. They should certainly form part of your portfolio but whenever possible include the background to give a sense of place and context.