In this weeks portrait tips and techniques post, I am demonstrating what I look for when selecting a portrait background. No, this is not about perspectives, “S” curves, leading lines. …..well not this week anyway. I observe regularly, many potentially great portraits ruined by poor selection of backgrounds, so here are my thoughts.

As I specialise in black and white, I’ll talk from that point of view. I would approach colour a little differently, as colour temperature of the background, clothing colours and skin brightness require a different thought process.

TIP…. if you want to learn this approach in colour I would start by looking at portrait paintings of the master artists such as Johannes Vermeer – 17th century Dutch/Flemish artist. See how they balance and place faces against certain coloured backgrounds etc.

I like things simple and try to avoid complicated backgrounds when possible. Of course if a client wants a certain location and it’s a busy one, then you may have to do extra post production to correct any problems. Usually my clients leave it to me. The first thing to understand is how to recognise these problems and deal with them before you take the portrait.

In general, most caucasian skin complexion is around a zone 6 on a gray scale (give or take half a stop). In other words a stop brighter than a gray card (zone 5) – darker skin around a stop or two less than a gray card. The idea is to place the face on an area that is darker than the skin tone, so the face being lighter stands out more than the background.

The image below is a good example of a light face contrasting against a darker background.

Canon 5D – 70-200 F2.8L IS – ISO 400 – 1/80th @ F2.8

The next problem can be busy and contrasty backgrounds. My portrait tip here is to look for locations with even-toned, textured backgrounds. Again the image above is an example of this. The boy is sitting on the side of a gully and the background is the continuation of the gully. The area is covered in weeds and vegetation of the same texture and colour. With a camera setting of 1/80th @F2.8 there is very little depth of field, so the background is soft and dark like an old canvas background, allowing the face to stand out.

Below are two overview images of the working area of the above portrait, plus I have attached a stepped gray card to the black & white image to show the tonal relationship between the gray scale and the background as seen in black & white.

The stepped gray scale is a quick and accurate way to learn to see in black and white. It will show you how different scenery and objects record in black & white.

TIP….. if you’re new to B&W, create a step chart on your computer, go out and take photos of scenery, painted buildings, multiple brick colours, concrete, weathered timber, grass and as many things you can think of. Then create a duplicate copy, convert one to B&W. Align the colour image side by side with the B&W image and attach the step cart to the B&W (as above), then you can compare how the different colours and textures record in B&W. This will also show you what clothing colours work best with certain background textures and colours.

The image below is an example of how bright skies can pull your eyes away from the subjects. A study of where the background is much brighter than the faces and will require post production work to improve it. Having said that, the emotion in the image overrules the technical side. Where possible, I try to avoid these types of backgrounds, as the broken spotted light is distracting and in my opinion worse in colour. But I like these old tracks and it’s a case of giving the boys some fun and recording the moment.

The two images following are more examples of combining darker neutral tones with the soft texture of vegetation to create a simple background to allow the subjects to stand out without distraction.

Hopefully these photo tips on location selection,  will give you a different thought process to selecting backgrounds for your portraits.  Used this way will save time on the computer fixing unwanted background distractions. Striking and exotic backgrounds are great, but learning to place the subjects in the scene, based on skin tone and clothing colours, will make your subjects the centre of attention.

TIP….When in doubt – KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Thank you to those who leave comments, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to do so. Without comments I don’t know what you’re looking for.

If you have a particular subject you would like me to write on, please let me know. I try to keep the info not too technical, as this blog is for photographers of all different levels to enjoy. If you’re looking for more in-depth techniques on available light portraiture, my eBook, Black & White – Natural Light Portraiture is ideal.

FREE GIFT……If you would like a free copy of the “gray scale step chart” for your computer desktop, just enter your email address in our STAY IN TOUCH subscription box and I’ll send you a copy with our next newsletter.

Until next week, happy shooting



  1. Hayley Says:

    Wayne I am absolutley loving your blog posts and learn heaps with each one. Black and white portraiture is an art in itself and you are truly a master. I hate the general thinking of ‘If all else fails, convert it to black and white’ instead of actually planning for black and white. You inspire me to master black and white photography as it’s definitely my favourite to view. Thank you for giving so freely.
    Would love a post on how you convert and tone your images in post..I love the hue they have.

  2. Andrea Says:

    Thanks Wayne, I love hearing your reasoning behind the decisions you make for each photo, I learn something new everytime. Comparing different background textures with the greyscale chart is a fantastic idea. Love your work!

  3. Sandra Lea Says:

    Thank you for your post, I have purchased your Black and White – Natural Portraiture, and absolutely love it. I get so imspired after viewing your work. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Liz Says:

    Thanks Wayne, I’m really enjoying reading your blog posts. Your ebook was fantastic, I learn’t so much. I would love a post on posing of hands.

  5. David Glasco Says:

    I believe you have one of the best if not the best B&W blog on the internet. Your work is beautiful and your posts are very informative. Thank you for sharing your time and talent with us. I am sure it is going to help me get to the next level with my photography. Keep me inspired and keep sending your wonderful How To’s.


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