Recently, a technical challenge forced me to try something new, and what I learned has completely changed how I do backgrounds.
The challenge was in completing the below portrait of Tag, a 14 year old bright white Labrador Retriever.
After putting together a composition from several different reference photos, a process I discuss in this post about compositions and the portrait process, we looked at what could be done for the background.
Up until this point, I had been using primarily white backgrounds, with a slightly darker vignette around the edges to make the subject pop and keep the viewer’s attention.
But with Tag, that wasn’t going to work: she was effectively white herself. If I’d continued with a white background, we might have gotten something like the image below, which is disappointingly flat.
White Portrait Background with a Vignette:
Where’s the contrast??
Apart from her nose and eyes, there is very little excitement here. With no sharp edges around her head, our attention wanders from there in search of interest, and we find… her armpits. Why? Because they have a lot of contrast, and contrast holds attention.
This is really not what I wanted to happen with the portrait, so I needed a way to make her head a stronger focal point, and minimize contrast in areas that are supposed to be in the peripheral, such as her feet and legs (and armpits).
Introducing Contrast and Colour to the Background
More Light on Dark, Dark on Light in Action
In the example below, black is used to draw attention directly to the face, but where the body is dark enough to show up clearly on white the canvas is left bare.