It’s not always a given that outdoor locations will provide an ideal backdrop for your portraits. If you find that the background just isn’t working for you, try one of these quick tips to save the image.
Take a Close-Up
Perhaps the easiest way to nullify an ugly background is to use the principles of depth of field to blur it out. Place your subject such that they are a good distance from the nearest background element, get in close to your subject, open the aperture nice and wide, and take your portraits.
When working with more than one subject, such as a family, it’s critical that you position each family member on the same focal plane. If not, some members of the family might be in focus while others aren’t so much. For an even better result, use a longer focal length lens. An 85mm lens is a go-to choice for many portrait photographers; something like a 70-200mm lens is even better, given that longer focal lengths only serve to blur the background even more. Additionally, these longer lenses compress the scene and have a pleasing effect on how your subjects look.
Blow It Out
A great way to deal with a less than appealing background is to simply blow it out. If you’re indoors, place your subject in front of a window or door, spot meter off their face, and fire away. This technique will work even if the light coming in the window or door isn’t especially bright. You can always do a little dodging in post to get the same effect.
If outdoors, blowing out an unsightly background is just as easy. Simply place your subject in front of a relatively bright or reflective surface - a white wall would be ideal - and position yourself such that the sun is as close to your subject’s back as possible. Again, spot meter off your subject’s face, which will get you a good exposure of your subject and a nicely blown out background as well.
Even the most unfortunate locations have some small areas of possibility when it comes to a pleasing background for a portrait. In an urban environment, place your subject in front of a bush or a tree to give the background a bit of lushness. You could even utilize a graffiti-filled wall as a nice, graphic element for your portrait background.
Indoors, use interesting furniture pieces, trims and moldings, light fixtures, and the like as anchors for your background that add a bit of architectural interest, and which distract the viewer from other, more unsavory elements in the background. You could even bring along a blanket with an interesting texture and have your subject(s) simply sit, kneel, or lay down on it to give you a better angle for excluding elements in the background that you don’t want or need.
It’s that endeavor to exclude unsightly background elements that is at the heart of working with challenging environments. Look for different angles. Use shadows and light to your advantage. Think strategically about how you frame the shot. And in post-processing, work your magic when it comes to cropping and editing the photo to give yourself further options for creating a stunning photo, even if the environment in which it was taken isn’t all that great.