Tips + Techniques

How to Separate Portrait Subjects From the Background

March 29, 2018

By Greg Scoblete

Spencer Selover | Pexels CC

Many photographers shoot portrait subjects against a solid color background or backdrop. While it’s a classic, timeless look, you do need to take care to create some depth and separate your subject from the background. If you don’t, you could get a strange effect where your subject’s head and background blend into one (this is especially true if your subject’s hair and the background are similar colors).

Here are a few tips to help you successfully separate your portrait subjects from the background.

Find a More Dynamic Background/Backdrop

A great and obvious place to start is to select a background that adds depth and avoid those plain, solid colors. If you’re in the studio, consider our hand-picked selections of great backdrops here (updated Oct. 2017) along with our roundup of new studio props and backdrops (updated June 2017). Patterns and textured fabric backdrops will automatically help distinguish subject from background.

If you’re shooting on seamless paper, simply cutting shapes into it can help add visual impact. Here are 10 creative ways to use seamless paper in your portrait photography.

Light Your Background Separately

One straightforward way to create some separation from your subject and the background is to light the background separately using flash.

Having a solid understanding of how light ratios impact your portrait photography will help determine how much light is needed on the background, but roughly speaking you’ll be using less flash power on the background than you will on your subject.

As Dave Montizambert explains, you can go beyond simply throwing an extra light at the background. You can also use uneven lighting or even reflective pieces of aluminum, like pie plates, to create the illusion of depth against a plain background. Learn more about Montizambert’s technique for creating illusionist lighting.

Use a Rim Light

Another option is to use a rim light on your subject to throw some light onto the sides of their body.

Placing a light on one or both sides of your subject’s body will cast light along the edge of their face, hair and torso and help separate it from the background. Like the background light, understanding light ratios will help you select the right power settings for your rim lights. Learn more about how to use rim lights in your portrait photography.

Use Water Mist or Vapor

This tip comes courtesy of photographer Joe Edelman, who suggests a spray bottle to shoot some mist behind your subject. Together with a background light, the tiny spritz will sparkle behind your subject and create the desired background separation. The closer you hold the spray bottle toward the model, the more detailed the water droplets will be. If you hold the bottle further away, the mist will appear more diffuse.

An alternative to water is Atmosphere Aerosol—basically a smoke machine in a spray bottle. It’s non toxic but super flammable, so no cigarettes, fireworks, blowtorches, etc., on set.

Color Theory to the Rescue

The color of your background and your subject’s clothes can create visual contrast, which is another useful tool for creating separation. If you’re able to control one or both of these variables, choose complementary colors. To find those colors, you can use a color wheel and select colors that are on opposite ends of the wheel—one can be a background color, the other, your subject’s clothing. For more, see how to leverage color theory in your photography.

More Portrait Photography Tips

These Are the Portrait Lighting Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make
How to Go Beyond a Basic Portrait Session
How to Master the Beauty Dish in Portrait Photography