Light or Dark Backgrounds for a Portrait? Sometimes it is Subject Driven

Many times when I am preparing to shoot a portrait, I have to make a decision on background color. I check three things: the purpose of the shot, the model’s features and hair color and wardrobe.

First of all – there is no right way to do this stuff. Anyone who tells you there is is either lying to you or trying to sell you something.

There are as many choices as one can make… and a few more for fun.

Your choice is based on what you see, how you see it, how you want it to look and what kind of light you want to use to create that look.

I see the finished image in my head before I start to work on it, and that makes the work go a bit smoother. With the image in my minds eye, I can start to work backwards to create the light. I call that ‘Subject Centric Lighting” and is something I am quite fond of discussing.

The shots above were shot for a client’s upscale hair studio. She had asked several of her favorite clients to come in for a free color/haircut/makeup session if they would allow the picture to be used on their website and in-store promotions. Since their prices were somewhat… I did mention it was upscale, right… the ladies were all for it.

None of these subjects are professional models – they are clients of the hair studio. That means I have to work fast AND smart to deliver the shots the client wanted.

I knew that there would be a mixture of lighter and darker colored hair, so I decided on a black/white theme. We would either shoot them on white or black. I like that because no matter what, black and white are always in fashion.

The clean and graphic look of the images would be very well presented in their modern, minimalist studio.

More after the jump…

A short roll of white seamless was packed, as well as my trusty 6’x6′ black cloth. I was given a tiny corner of the studio to construct my ‘set’ and I tethered up the MacBook.

I used one large umbrella, a 60″ Satin, in bounce mode. It is in very close to the subjects from camera left. The seamless behind them was angled toward the light so it would be very lit up – flat to the lights angle actually. There was no room for a second light to be safely set, so I had to do with one.

A bright white fill card was attached to a stand and brought in close to the subjects from camera right.. and it extended back to help catch a little of that bright umbrella washing past them. In very close, the 60″ had lots of wrap, lots of spill.

As that light spilled behind the subjects, it hit the white seamless and lit it up fine. Since it was only a few inches behind the subject it stayed pretty bright. Simple adjustment in Photoshop regained the areas that went a little dark. and I resisted making them perfectly white so there would be some contrast when they were placed on the stark white walls. A very, very slight darkening happens at the bottom and camera right, but that adds a bit of depth to the images – especially when placed on pure, bright white.

Of course, at the angle of the umbrella – set to light up the seamless as well as the subject, I had to bring a fill card in from camera right well in front of them so it would keep their faces lit with little fall off. I added a second fill card to the camera side of the umbrella angled to catch the spill and light up the front of their faces as well.

The black cloth would be thrown over the seamless and adjusted for no wrinkles (wrinkles show highlights) and we would then shoot the same lighting, but with a flag in front of the spill from camera left.

I worked their faces toward the light, and didn’t allow them to turn away, toward the fill board, as it would have rendered their faces a bit dark… and not at all in keeping with the ideal of this shot.

I wanted the hair to look great, so a small white fill board was supported on a small boom above and behind the subjects to add a bit of light to the top of their heads. It may have been only slight though, because the large umbrella in close provided a wonderfully rich, wrap around light.

I made most of the decisions in this instance because of hair color. Blondes and redheads got black, brunettes and darker got the white. Contrast of the hair to the background was the most important thing for me – it was a hair studio, so we wanted to feature that aspect of it.

I had about a 2 minutes with each of the women, and used my time wisely. I kept eye contact with them and was super encouraging. Many of them were very nervous, but keeping it light, not fussing with the gear, or chimping a hundred times built up some trust. Once I had the trust, I could coax a look that was authentic and real, and not too selfconsciously affected.

The background can make a big difference in every photograph, and in these images – shot at the same time with the same light – really show how the background can be used to frame and isolate the subject. In the black shots, the portrait seems much more isolated to me, while the white backgrounds seem to be more open. I don’t think it is a huge feature, one that jumps off the page, but they do have a much different feel.

Shooting on black, white and deep gray is something I do often. But it is always a choice that is made from looking at the subject, seeing the portrait in my head, and then making that portrait happen.

In the examples here, I gave you the parameters that helped me make my decisions. The subject, the place where the images were going to be displayed, the over all “look” of the business, the desire of the clients to make the hair look good, the time constraints, the fact that the models may be nervous and self conscious, the space I had to shoot and the post processing that may be required. All of those things led to the shots above.

And as I said, different circumstances may trigger different results. I shoot blondes on white and pure black hair on black as well… even in ways that show the hair. And there are about a million other ways a million other photographers would have done. That’s cool.
In post we took care of anomalies, and repaired a bit of skin here and there, but for the most part, they were good right out of camera. That is important when you are going to have to sit your ass in a chair to do post on 54 women. A slight ‘romantic’ effect was added per the client – in keeping with her overall look – and done.

I love shooting faces, and gigs like this are a very fun day.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

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