I imagine it’s a scenario that plays out quite often: you take inventory of your gear and realize you don’t have two really important pieces — off-camera flash and a backdrop of some kind (muslin, seamless paper, etc.).
So you resort to what you deem to be the next best option — take your portraiture outdoors.
It’s a perfectly logical and feasible option that can really open up creative potential for your portraits, but outdoor portraiture also has the potential to foil some of those lofty ideas you may have originally held, especially when it comes to getting good backgrounds.
If you’ve taken up outdoor portraiture and have found yourself struggling to achieve non-distracting/less distracting backgrounds, you’ll be happy to know that the solutions to your frustration are super simple and won’t cost you a dime.
1. Micromanage the Background
When you decide to shoot in the great outdoors you kind of have to take what you’re given – and sometimes, particularly in urban environments, what you have to work with is less than ideal.
Your job as a portrait photographer is to work the scene, not to let the scene work you. This means paying attention to detail; virtually any scene you encounter will have the potential to work for you. All you need to do is break the environment down to its very best elements.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a building facade, a tree or a graffiti covered wall; there’s always a small area of potential. Locate that area of potential, position your subject accordingly and get your shot.
2. Blur Out the Background
Shooting wide open refers to taking a shot with your lens set to its largest (widest) aperture. This, in turn, creates shallow depth of field — you can keep your subject’s face in focus while blurring out the background. There are, however, a couple of points you will want to keep in mind in order to get the best results from this method.
It may not be possible to use your lens wide open in a bright outdoor setting without severely overexposing the shot. If you can’t get your shutter speed high enough to get a proper exposure, you can use a neutral density filter to help decrease the amount of light entering the lens.
Be sure to place your subject a good distance from the background; if there isn’t sufficient space between your subject and the background you won’t really see any blur.
You can further help maximize background blur by using a longer focal length, which will take better advantage of the compression effect. An 85mm focal length will produce more compression than a 50mm focal length; 200mm is even better.
3. Blow Out the Background
A third practical but creative way to handle a distracting background is to overexpose it a bit. It’s easy to accomplish. Position your subject in front of a well-lit background (something as simple as a white wall can work wonders) and meter for the subject’s face (use spot metering if your camera has it).
The end result will be a blown out background with your subject being the center of attention. A quick reminder: make sure you don’t meter for the background or you’ll end up with a silhouette.
My Final Thoughts
Some photographers prefer to do their portraits outdoors; others resort to working outdoors due to financial or space constraints.
No matter what might compel you to take up outdoor portraiture, you must be aware that you are going to encounter challenging environments; you may save money on traditional studio equipment but you’re going to have to expend some time and effort overcoming cluttered/unsightly backgrounds.
Fortunately, it’s not a terribly difficult thing to do. While the ideas presented above represent specific solutions, the overriding point is to use the environment to your advantage – use light, shadows, angles and even less-than-perfect backgrounds in a creative manner.
And after you’ve captured your shot, apply that same creativity in post-processing; some resourceful cropping can be especially helpful for improving busy backgrounds.