How to use backgrounds to level-up your headshots
Image credit Tony Gale.
I still remember picking up my first camera — if I saw something interesting, I pointed and clicked. Like many of us when we first started out, I thought my photos were great — but as time passed, I realized how much more I had to learn, and the learning and improving never stops. At the top of the list was the ability to pay attention to the frame beyond my subject. What is around and behind the subject could make the photo better, or ruin it. I had to pay attention to my headshot background.
Now, as a full-time people and portrait photographer, the overwhelming majority of the work I do is photographs of people (and nowadays I always pay attention to what is around and behind them). Because composition and framing is a topic far too deep to cover all of in one blog post, I am going to focus on portraits and the importance of controlling the background in your business portrait and professional headshot photos.
Image credit Tony Gale.
Unless I am photographing someone with a very tight frame, some kind of background is always visible (super tight framing, while cool, is rarely appropriate for headshots or business portraits). The most important element to consider in your background is making sure it doesn’t distract from your subject. Even better is if the background adds to the story of your subject.
Image credit Tony Gale.
There are as many ways to do things in photography as there are photographers, and what works for you will vary, but let me share my approach. There are three main categories of backgrounds for headshots and professional portraits: the environment that a person is photographed in, an artificial background placed behind the person, and a background added later in post-production. I’ll break them down below.
The environmental background
Wherever you are making the portrait, this is the existing background. The first thing I think about with this is, 'do I want the background to be clear and does it add to the story we are trying to tell? Would it be better to just have a sense of the space but without seeing any real details?'
The first thing you need to assess is if having a super clear background adds value (e.g. it helps to understand the person's business, or maybe it's just a cool space). If a clear background is key, I may add light to match my subject so they and the background match in tone. I’ll also use an aperture that doesn’t blur it too much.
The specific setting will vary but, often when using a lens like my Sony 70-200/2.8 GM II or 135/1.8 GM, I will use f/5.6 to f/11. If the background is not an asset but I still want the sense of place, I may use f/2-to f/4 and on rare occasions I may go as low as f/1.2 with other lenses.
Image credit Tony Gale. A very out of focus environmental background, captured at f/2.8 with a 24-70mm lens at 70mm.
Image credit Tony Gale. A sharper background to give more context. This photo shows Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser, photographed for New York Moves Magazine, captured at f/9 at 24mm.
The artificial background
Often, the simplest solution is an artificial background such as the classic white seamless. You will rarely be wrong with a simple clean white or gray background. The options are almost limitless — I have an assortment of Manfrotto collapsible backgrounds, and you can buy custom painted muslins, use seamless paper, or get simple fabric, and create just about anything you can imagine.
The advantage of an artificial background is that you have complete control. You can make the background brighter or darker with lighting and you can get almost any color you want. You can add saturation to the background by adding colored gels to your lights — one technique I particularly like is to use a black background and add a gelled light for a dramatic punch of color.
Image credit Tony Gale. Writer Salman Rushdie photographed for Poets and Writers Magazine, using a blue gelled light for a pop of color on the black background. Captured at f/8 at 54mm.
Image credit Tony Gale. A simple background is rarely a mistake. Captured at f/8 at 82mm.
The post-production background
The advantage of adding a background in post-production is it can be absolutely anything you or your client wants. Maybe you photographed them in Los Angeles but they wish they were in Times Square, or the Grand Canyon, or Rome? No problem, that can be done.
To do this, you can use existing photos of your own. When I travel, I will occasionally take photographs for potential use as backgrounds — I will shoot both a focus and exposure bracket so I have a range of options based on the end goal. One advantage of photographing backgrounds yourself, with different focus points, is that for me, optical blur looks and feels more natural than digital blur.
If you add blur in post, it will have a consistent blur. That works well with a flat background (like the example below), but with a background with more depth it can look artificial. Adobe Lightroom, with its cloud storage, can be a useful way to organize your backgrounds — I can see what I have and access my images from anywhere with an internet connection. If you need a background that isn’t in your library, you can always license a stock image from somewhere like Adobe Stock.
Image credit Tony Gale. Part of my image library of backgrounds in Adobe Lightroom.
When using a post-production background you will need to cut your subject out and add in the background image. Adobe Photoshop’s subject selection tool is absolutely amazing for this. It typically gets me 95 percent of the way there with one click, and then I use the Quick Mask tool with a paintbrush or eraser to get any details that were missed.
Image credit Tony Gale. I use the amazing Object Selection tool to select the subject.
Image credit Tony Gale. Then, I use Quick Mask and the Brush tool to clean up anything that was missed.
Image credit Tony Gale. I copy and paste the portrait into the background.
Image credit Tony Gale. Then, apply a Gaussian Blur on a duplicate background layer.
Image credit Tony Gale. I will sometimes use Quck Mask and the Brush tool to select the edges of the image pasted in and use a Curves Adjustment layer to darken the edges.
Image credit Tony Gale. The final image, portrait captured in studio and background captured in Venice. Combined with the magic of Photoshop
Creating a hybrid artificial and post-production background
One last background option is a bit of a hybrid between the artificial and post-production backgrounds. For this I use an existing image as a background, and either project or put it on a large computer monitor or TV behind my subject. Two things to keep in mind: have the depth of field be a little shallow so the screen is a little out of focus, and make sure the lighting on your subject doesn’t impact the image behind.
Image credit Tony Gale. The winter landscape is on a large screen behind the subject. From a series of self portraits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Captured at f/2.
"Every situation is different, and every photo can be better."
The options for backgrounds are as limitless as your imagination. But the key is to make sure it is a choice and that the background is not distracting from your subject.
Always pause and think about what is in the frame. Maybe shifting yourself or changing the background will make it better. Every situation is different, and every photo can be better.