Find six very different settings or backgrounds which could be used effectively and attractively for either a whole body or torso portrait. You will need to take into account the lens focal length and camera position, and the lighting. Many things can work together to make an attractive backdrop, so there is no simple formula, and ultimately your choice will be based on what you like. Take reference pictures of the locations as you come across them, without people. Finally, choose one of them and return with a portrait subject and photograph them.
1. Train station:
My thinking here was that it’s a visually interesting spot, part of an old steam train station and kept in 1940s style, and that it’s relevant to the proposed subject (my wife Ann) as the town is where we’ve made our home in recent years, and we quite often walk through the station on a weekend. If this had been chosen, I envisaged a full-length shot sitting to one side of the ‘Pickering’ sign.
2. Disused shop front:
For a different look, and one that I have seen used in magazine photography, I thought this black and white deserted shop front would be good. I has quite a distinctive aesthetic feel to it, and in my mind I saw the subject leaning in the doorway looking nonchalant. The background has enough visual interest without being too busy. For this to work, the subject would need to be wearing light clothing in order to stand out against the black door.
3. Castle footpath:
Just up by Pickering Castle there is a broad footpath that splits off into two to circle the castle walls. Perspective forms a fat triangle (or actually more like a rhombus) which I could envisage framing a torso length portrait. My eye was first drawn to the scene by the shadow of the tree falling at the head of the path, almost forming the figure of a body (if you have a vivid imagination).
4. Bench with bush backdrop:
I spotted this bench in front of a colourful bush and though that it might make an attractive location for a seated portrait. The choice of clothing would almost certainly present a contrast with the yellow of the foliage.
Although quite simple, with broad swathes of plain colour, the beach location appealed to me for two reasons: the light, very clear and bright (although this may not be the case if returning at another time with a subject) and the diverging lines formed by the waves and the sea, which could help to frame a torso portrait and lead the eye upwards to the face.
6. Barn door:
Something a bit more run-down and rustic. Like the shop front, this is one where I imagined the subject leaning against the door, probably in the space to the right without the middle horizontal bar. The risk here is that the subject is too small in the frame, and it becomes more a picture of a barn door that happens to have a person in it.
I felt that the frontrunners were probably the castle path, the barn door and the beach, as they gave the best framing options in my mind. In the end I went for the castle path. Part of this was around the suitability from a backdrop point of view – the path as framing device, the textures of the grass and the wall – and partly because it actually means something to the subject: the castle path is one of the regular places we go to walk the dog on a weekend.
When I returned with my wife, she was wearing a red coat that complemented the green of the grass really well. The framing device of the path shape lived up to its promise in my pre-visualisation. The tree shadow from my test shot wasn’t there as it was a totally different time of day, but I think that’s for the best as the shadow as an additional element may have been too distracting. The sky wasn’t anywhere near as blue and attractive as in the test shot so I went for a slightly tighter crop that majored on the path, grass and wall.
What I’ve learned
Most of the learning here was in the preparation – not just taking the six test shots but actually thinking properly about what would make a good location. I had a couple of false starts on this to be honest. My initial instinct with a background, especially in a portrait, is to make it as inconspicuous as possible, sometimes by framing but usually by shallow depth of field. The idea that the background should itself be attractive and interesting is quite novel to me. So my first attempts at finding locations were very plain, to the point of being bland. I initially included a couple of indoor locations, but ultimately rejected these as I realised I’d chosen them for their plainness, not their attractiveness. The lightbulb moment for me was a line in the Roswell Angier book ‘Train Your Gaze’ :
“Photographers and viewers alike tend to pay less attention to what is in the background of a picture because they think it is less important than what is in the foreground. This is a mistake. You should always think of background and foreground as two equal parties to a visual conversation.”
This made me rethink, and I found another bunch of locations locally that I felt better fit the brief.
So now I’ve slightly rewired my photographic brain (I like exercises like this; where you actually feel like you’ll do things differently in future); I can now see that a background can be as much as part of the image as the foreground. The location chosen can contribute to the message or mood or intent of the image, it can give it context. In future I won’t be so quick blurring out the background and assuming it’s an extra in the scene, as sometimes it’s more like the co-star.
1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA