What makes a “good” background?

Brian G. is an Improve Photography alumnus of the Portrait Lighting Photography class. He asked some great questions about portrait backgrounds, and has given permission for his questions and photos to be shared here on the site.

openQuoteI feel pretty solid with the composition lesson. The only thing that’s a bit confusing to me still is how to define what a good background is. If I’m doing a portrait inside, I try to use something that adds to the story or at least doesn’t distract. However, I’m not totally sure I understand how to define a good background, particularly when dealing with an indoor setting where lots of things can add clutter to an image.

“As far as outdoor backgrounds go, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on things, but I’m not sure if I should be thinking more about lines and other stuff like that. Right now, I just look for something pleasing and try to line up elements of interest in the background or converging lines with the rule of thirds grid. As you said though, I don’t take the rule of thirds overly seriously to the point of missing a good picture that breaks that rule.

Syversen Family 019

I felt the background worked in this shot.

Syversen Family 018

I like this shot, but I’m not thrilled with the composition. Children can be hard to predict.


I chose the set up because of the background. It doesn’t follow the rule of thirds but I like it a lot anyway.

“Based on these, do you think I have a pretty good handle on composition? I would have taken some more pictures yesterday but I was confused about how to look for a pleasing indoor background. Maybe you could elaborate on that for me. Mostly, I try to blur the background into submission if I’m not happy with it (like a cluttered room).”

— Brian G.

Jim’s response:

openQuoteI think you’re exactly on track with the backgrounds. Like you, I usually want the blurriest possible backgrounds when shooting indoors to make the background less noticeable. In the first photo of the girl in front of the easel, I agree with you that the background seems to add to the photo because it is obviously a kids item and is simple enough in shape that it doesn’t draw too much attention.

“The second photo of the girl in the same room also looks nice, but I definitely prefer the background in the first photo. The background in the first photo looks more intentional to me.

“In the last photo, the green background definitely works just fine for almost any portrait. It’s simple, beautiful, and doesn’t distract from the person. Perhaps that’s why so many professional photographers do their shoots in public parks. However, sometimes I do feel like the simple green outdoor background is a bit boring or even cliche and I’d like to see photographers thinking of new places to shoot.”

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