Portraiture requires a number of specialized tools – and that number increases depending on who you ask, and how serious a portrait photog you are. At the most basic level, a lens well suited to portraiture work and some form of lighting are needed; at the other end of the spectrum are photos with huge studio spaces dedicated solely to making portraits.
Here’s one thing you don’t need a specialized version of – a background.
If this sounds counterintuitive, it isn’t. Although there are plenty of vendors ready to sell you everything from sheet paper to expensive muslin backgrounds, the reality is that you don’t need them. You have all the background you need already around you.
This shot wasn’t taken in a studio. It wasn’t taken at a state park, or a preserve, or a garden. It was taken in someone’s backyard.
The simplest setup needs only a blank, white wall. If you’re doing head-and-shoulder style portraits, and you place your model several feet from the wall and then light both independently, you’ll have a nice portrait. Let’s say you get fancy and put a color gel on the BG light, then shoot it through something (glasses, a plant, etc) to add some shadow textures – at this point, you’ve completely left the realm of “mugshots.” For proof, take a look at the Stobist site, where David Hobby regularly turns the walls of hotel conference rooms into BGs. If you can do it with a Holiday Inn, you can do it anywhere.
Personally, I don’t like artificial BGs nearly as much as I like natural ones. In my latest portrait shoot, I used white roll paper in the studio and got some great shots. But my favorite frames came afterwards, when we were doing the last few outside. And we didn’t go anyplace exotic to get them – far from it, we were in a side yard.
As you can see from my sketch, this is your fairly typical, rural yard. We’ve got our big pine tree with the rope swing as a central point, but surrounding it we’ve got the house, a fire pit, a pile of kid toys, a horse trailer, and a fenced-in pasture. Some elements, like the pasture, could be useful as a BG (most places will lack a pasture, but a garden, or a small wooded/brushy area will work just as well). Most of the other features, not so much – nobody really wants a pile of kids toys in their senior portrait.
The key then is to setup your shot so that this distracting stuff isn’t visible. Sure, you could clone it out later, but why bother? It’s far easier to just get it right in-camera. In this case, I was lucky – the sun was already down near the tree line, so I was able to work in any direction I wanted without worrying about flare.
For the rope-swing shots, I setup with the pasture in the BG – it’s an area that will go nicely out of focus without any distracting elements. The kids toys and fire pit got hidden behind the pine tree; the house was kept out of the other side of the frame by the focal length.
Next, we shot some with the model up on the front porch. It’s a nice porch, which helps, but still we don’t want to see a lot of it. So I had her stand by one of the vertical posts and shot through some ornamental grass. The BG goes dark, and the foreground elements help disguise the location.
Turn it around with the model sitting on the porch rail, and the same trick still applies; the focal length keeps some hanging plants out of sight, the horse trailer is hidden behind the model, and the toys go far enough out of focus to pretty much disappear.
I guarantee you, you can walk into any backyard in your area and find several backgrounds against which you can shoot good portraits. It may take a little creativity, you may even have to accept that some elements are there and work them into the overall shot – but it can be done.
Remember – zoom in to discard distractions, play with angles to exclude elements, and find ways to hide things in plain sight.
** For all the photos here, I’m using the 400D & 28-135mm lens at 1/200th, f/5.6, ISO 200. A single strobe with a shoot-through umbrella provides key light, while the ambient provides fill.