My favorite portraits have backgrounds that help tell the story of the person being photographed. In this shot of my dog, Dodie, the background helps to tell the story of what a great reader she is.
But most of the time we need a background that will support the image of a person with out competing with the subject. I have several backgrounds that I use for portraits on location, some of which I also use on location.
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I have seen some good images taken with a sheet for a background, but I have seen more images that would have been better if they were made on a real background. I want to talk about what a real background is and how you can use it. The first thing you need from a background is size. I think that 9X20 feet is the minimum. Why so big? Well, the first reason is that you can do a head to foot shot on this size drop and have the subject standing on the background. Even a king-size sheet isnít big enough for the subject to stand on.
Another important aspect of a big background is that you donít have to worry about whether you have enough on the sides. This frees up the photographer to move around in front of the subject. The other thing a big drop provides is the ability to move the subject away from the background so that you can adjust the light separately on the background from the subject. This provides a lot of ability to manipulate the color and density of the background without changing the subject.
The extra distance between the subject and the background means that we can solve the problems of shadows from the subject falling on the background. I generally want at least 5 feet between the subject and the background, frequently I will use more!
I set up the next shot to show how you can change the light on the background in order to change the way the background appears. I used a middle grey background. I think this is the most useful background to have, particularly if you are changing the color of the background with lights.
I asked Camilo sit in for this shot. He has a strong face, which is good for the hard light I used in this shot. I used a single strobe for the subject with a small umbrella. I used the umbrella as a shoot through, and positioned the light very close to the subject. I didnít think this would be flattering but it did reduce the light spilling on the background. I wanted to do this shot to make a point about backgrounds not shooting portraits. I placed a light panel with a black cover between the light and the background to further reduce the light falling on the background. If you mix light from the subject with the background light youíll get less vivid color, more of a pastel.
Here is the shot of Camilo with out any light on the background.
Hereís the way the set-up looked. Notice the distance between the subject and the background.
About Author / Instructor / Photographer, John H. Siskin
John Siskin is a commercial and fine art photographer who makes architectural, portrait and macro images. He has worked for General Motors and Disney Studios. He teaches the BetterPhoto course An Introduction to Photographic Lighting and is the author of the book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers.
In addition, he teaches studio lighting black and white photography at Los Angeles Mission College. His studio is in Reseda California and more of his work can be seen at www.siskinphoto.com
His work has been part of many exhibits. His photographs have been shown at the Brand Library, 2nd City Art Gallery, Haroldís Gallery, Farmani Gallery, and The Atelier. He has been a participant in the Valley Studio Tour several times.
John has published quite a number of technical articles about photography. His articles have appeared in Photo Techniques, View Camera, Studio Photography and others. He has written about photographic lighting, building lenses, framing, photographic lab work, building cameras, as well as some more speculative photographic subjects. Since he is so well versed in photographic subjects, he is often hired as a consultant by businesses.