The Art of Using Backgrounds in Photography and Video

The Art of Using Backgrounds in <span class=Photography and Video" loading="lazy" />

From dramatic backlighting to framing the subject, uncover five secrets for leveling up your videos and portrait photography with backgrounds.

One of the main elements of any shot is the background. It can be something as intricate as a bustling city skyline at night, or as simple as a brick wall. In the language of cinematography, the background is an important part of the grammar. Filmmakers can use it to help drive the story forward, draw a viewer’s attention on screen, or make a subject pop from the frame. Horror movies are especially good at using the background to increase tension and build suspense.

Since backgrounds can change as the subject and camera move, it’s important not to neglect this part of your shot. There are a number of factors that can help create the perfect background. Let’s take a look at five in particular. 

Framing

Framing is at the heart of good cinematography. While your shot has a frame, you can further frame subjects on screen via the background environment. Natural leading lines not only draw a viewer’s eye on screen, but they can also help frame your subject.  

By blocking out your shot properly, you can place the subject and camera to utilize the surrounding environment. In this example, the subject is framed nicely between the buildings around him. This shot wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if he were shot against one individual building. 

Art of the Background - FramingUse leading lines to frame your subject. Image via footage by verticalstock.

Here we have a girl hiking along a dirt road. The shot is much more visually interesting with her following the leading lines of both the road and the tree lines. A tracking shot from the side of her would not be quite as dynamic.

Art of the Background - Framing 2Framing helps lend interest to your images. Image via footage by Petrunine world studio.

Depth

Depending on what you’re communicating with your shot, you might want to show as much of your environment as possible. As with framing, adding depth to your shot is as simple as properly blocking both the camera and the subject. This is a great example of good use of depth. This tracking shot captures the depth of both the train station and the train in one smooth move. 

Art of the Background - Depth 1Show the environment to give your audience a sense of place. Image via footage by BlackBoxGuild.

Further control the depth of what’s in focus via the depth of field. If you’d like to see the background clearly in focus, then increase the depth of field. Conversely, use a shallow depth of field to help isolate subjects on screen. 

This is a great example of a shallow depth of field, where just the woman is in focus. The man sitting directly to her right is blurred, keeping our attention on the woman. Understanding how to control your depth of field will give you better backgrounds. 

Art of the Background - Depth 2Use a shallow depth of field to isolate your primary subject. Image via footage by Aila Images.

Color

One way to spice up your background is via color. Add contrast or use complimentary colors to make your subject stand out. If you have the chance to scout your shooting locations, you can create a color palette from prospective backgrounds. This can help you make decisions on what you want your talent to wear on the day of the shoot. 

This woman’s yellow jacket helps her stand out nicely against the red train. 

Art of the Background - Color 1Contrasting colors help the audience find the subject of your image. Image via footage by BublikHaus.

On the other hand, this business woman matches the color scheme of the surrounding buildings via a similar color scheme.

Art of the Background - Color 2Conversely, a consistent color scheme offers an aesthetic quality to images. Image via footage by Michael Drogomyretsky.

Motion

Oftentimes you’ll find yourself shooting from a tripod. In these situations, it can be difficult to add movement. When both the subject and the camera are static, adding a bit of movement to the background can help create a more dynamic shot. Here we have two portrait style shots that are applying this technique. While subtle, it definitely produces a better image. 

In this shot, we see a portrait of a man on a work site. Sparks fly off behind him, which helps add to the atmosphere of the worksite.  

Art of the Background - Motion 1Action and movement give life to footage. Image via footage by Gorodenkoff.

Placing this actress in front of a city street at night, we have all of the motion of the traffic lights and the pedestrians moving through the city. Use a shallow depth of field to keep the focus on the subject, and now you have a really enticing shot. 

Art of the Background - Motion 2Try combining action with a shallow depth of field for a dynamic effect. Image via footage by videodream.

Lighting

Lighting is another integral part of cinematography. Both natural and artificial light can be used in the background to enhance any shot. Something as simple as placing your subject between the camera and a setting or rising sun will create a great look. 

The placement of the sun in this particular shot gives us a much more compelling look. With the morning sun shining through the window, both the baby and the woman have nice rim lighting. With the sun revealed, we can’t see the details of their faces. When the baby’s head eclipses the sun, however, the details become more visible. This lighting creates a nice warm atmosphere.

Art of the Background - Lighting 1Play with light placement to hide and reveal details. Image via footage by logoboom.

You don’t need direct light for a great look. This shot of a dark forest works especially well due to the bright background and the dark foreground. The lighting makes our subject stand out clearly in the shot. 

Art of the Background - Lighting 2Use light to guide the eye of the audience. Image via footage by Robsonphoto.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that most of the examples above are using two or more of the techniques. The real power of these tricks is when you combine them to create a truly unique shot.

Explore even more about using backgrounds and other techniques for capturing incredible portraits:

Composition and Lighting in Portrait Photography with Kyle CongFrom Natural to Homemade: Choose the Right Background for Your Shoot5 Quick Tricks to Spice Up Your Portrait Photography@PortraitMeet: Community on Instagram with Photographer Can Ahtam7 Tips for Shooting Underwater Portrait Photography

Cover image by 4kclips.

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