Quick Tips for Choosing a Photography Background or Color for Portraits and Headshots

Common Perceptions about Background Type and Color

So you’ve made an appointment to have a professional portrait or headshot photo shoot. You’ve consulted with the photographer ahead of time about what to wear and bring, but now you are wondering whether to use a solid black, gray, or white background or a textured scenic background. You think black backgrounds might not work because they are too dark. You think white backgrounds are too stark, and you think gray backgrounds are boring and plain. You don’t like scenic backgrounds because they look too stuffy, dated, and antiquated. And shooting in the city can easily end up with too many distractions behind you. All of those perceptions hold a degree of truth, but they can also be made invalid, depending upon the photographer, lighting, and post processing. Here are some things to ponder when choosing a photography background and color:

Where Will the Image Be Used and Reside

First, the most obvious and immediate consideration that everybody discusses – how and where you will use the image, including what specific room it will reside in, what kind of lighting will fall on the image, what color scheme is in the room, what specific magazine or web page the digital will be placed in, or what kinds of images will rest next to your image. Formal settings warrant formal images. Casual settings lend themselves to casual images. Those things are generally true. Also, the lightning in a room will affect the look (and life) of an image. If the room is very dark or just not well lit, you might want to opt for a background color, canvas, or texture that will stand out well in the room. Likewise if the room has a light and airy feel, you might want to make sure the image also has a light background, composition, and feel. Wardrobe colors can contrast or blend, depending on the overall look the photographer wants to achieve.

Lighting Considerations

Second, consider the photographer’s portfolio and lighting capabilities. Take a look at how the images are lit. Black backgrounds can produce stunning, formal portraits when well lit, but there are some things a photographer needs to do to light a black background, based upon the type of image or look he or she wants to achieve. Not all black backgrounds are too dark. White backgrounds can be made white but also to go to all shades of white, gray, and total black, depending on how they are shot. In short, what color you see is not necessarily the one you end up with. So don’t rule in or out colors for that reason.

About Gray and White Backgrounds

Third, gray backgrounds provide a great deal of flexibility in post for a photographer. They also provide a clean look and a non-distracting background. Gray backgrounds blend well with textures. (The fine art image on the home page with a brown textured canvas looking background was actually shot on a gray seamless background and a green colored stool. The green background on the home page in the featured image was shot on a light tan background. The retouching image with the pink background was also shot on a light tan background.) White backgrounds can end up dirty gray, perfectly white, too white, or even totally dark depending on how the photographer chooses to shoot them and what lighting he or she has available.

In summary, do have an open mind and select backgrounds based on the look and feel you want to achieve, wardrobe colors, and setting requirements… and then do a little research. Share your preferences with your photographer. And have fun during your session experimenting with backgrounds and composition, if time allows. Sometimes, the best images from a session are not the ones expected. I tend to photograph required images first (i.e., specific client requests) and then based on time remaining, experiment with other backgrounds and looks. More than once I’ve heard, “oh… I love that image…I thought the ____ background would be too ___, but no! It’s my favorite!”

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