No matter if you're a professional photographer or a stay-at-home parent, sometimes you find yourself able to take portraits in locations that take your breath away.
Other times, though, the location is, well, not so good...
Though a portrait is all about the person you're photographing, the setting can certainly help set the mood of the shot.
That's not to say you have to be on a black sand beach or a mountaintop to get a drama-filled portrait, but it doesn't hurt, either.
When you simply don't have a picturesque spot available to shoot portraits, follow the tips below for taking better portraits, no matter the location.
Look for Color and Texture
In a portrait, you don't want the background to be so interesting, or on the flipside, so overwhelming, that the viewers lose sight of the subject.
Instead, you want the background to give some color and texture to the shot in a subtle way.
For example, if you want a more natural, serene vibe, look for backgrounds with earth-toned colors.
In the image above, though the background is completely out of focus, you can still tell that it's made up of trees and other plant life.
Note how the brown and gold colors in the background add warmth to the shot and mimic the gold tones of the woman's scarf, too.
For a grittier look, identify places that allow you to highlight some texture along with your portrait subject.
In the photo above, the textures of the street and the building walls gives this photo a more raw and unfinished look than the previous photo.
However, that look works well for this photo: Imagine it being a story about these two brothers growing up in an urban neighborhood.
The point is that neither of the above images were taken in a national park or some other beautiful spot, yet the photographers still managed to create impactful portraits. That's due in part to finding colorful and texture-rich locations to shoot the portraits.
Study How the Light Interacts With the Scene (and Your Subject Too)
Photography is all about lighting, so it should be no surprise that to get a better portrait, you need to study how the light and the scene work together.
Even if you aren't in an ideal location, you can use light and the way it falls across the scene to create a more interesting photo.
Looking at the image above, it's not hard to see that the location of the portrait isn't exactly breathtaking...
But because the photographer paid attention to how the light and the scene interact with one another, they were able to make a rather compelling portrait.
Placing the subject in the block of light helps minimize the impact of the surroundings and maximize the impact of the model.
What's more, the high contrast in the shot combined with the grittiness of the shoot location gives this image tons of visual interest.
Waiting until around sunset can also be an advantageous approach to improving the look of an otherwise boring shoot location.
The softer, warmer tones of the light are pleasing for just about any portrait, and the long shadows created by the position of the sun add drama to the shot as well.
But those shadows don't have to be in your face to have an impact...
In the photo above, notice how the model's face and torso are in sunlight, but the rest of her body is in shadow. Even that subtle difference in light helps make this a more visually interesting photo.
This image also goes to show how framing can help a portrait no matter the setting.
For all we know, this photo was taken in someone's overgrown backyard, but it doesn't matter because the image makes use of gorgeous light, colors, and textures to create something beautiful.
Find Opportunities for Subject and Setting to Interact
Typically, the rule of thumb is to have a setting that doesn't visually interfere or compete with your portrait subject.
And though that's a good rule of thumb, it's also good to break rules now and again!
If you're lacking in the beautiful setting department, you can amp up the interest in your shot by finding elements that your subject can interact with.
In the image above, the interaction of the model and the pier adds another layer of depth to this shot. Something as simple as sitting on an object in the frame creates a more harmonious look.
In this example, there's more of an active interaction between the little boy and the stairs that gives this shot a more dynamic feel.
Notice how the scene isn't especially compelling - there's no eye-catching colors, no interesting shadows - but because the boy is captured in the act of climbing the stairs, the lack of visual interest doesn't matter as much.
In other words, if you find your portrait location to be on the boring side, simply find a way for your subject to be active in that location, and that activity will help create something that's a little more interesting for viewers.
Wrapping It Up
There are plenty of other factors at play when creating a solid portrait, but the three tips outlined above should get you headed in the right direction when your shoot location just isn't up to snuff.
Use color, texture, and light as central qualities to look for in a better spot for your portraits. And if that fails, find a way for your subject to be more active in the scene.
Heck, try to combine all the tips above into one shot and see what you can create!
Give these tips a try, and see how they can help you make better portraits.
And to see these tips in action, check out the video above from Mango Street Labs.