From lifestyle to fine art, these seven artists discuss their top tips on how to choose the right background for your photo shoot.
Search DIY marketplaces like Etsy and camera stores like B&H and you’ll find a vast array of photography backgrounds, from patterned paper and weathered pine to slit drapes and mirrored gold. There are options to suit every genre, discipline, budget, and taste — whether you’re in the market for a wedding portrait background or a new surface for high-end product photography.
Make your subject shine with the right background. Image by Evgeny Atamanenko.
Regardless of whether you’re photographing a family album or an editorial spread for Real Simple or Food & Wine, your choice in background is one of the most important decisions you can make on set.
“Backgrounds set the mood for the whole composition,” Chicago-based photographer Gulia Efremova tells us. “While an incorrectly selected background can ruin the entire image, a great background will highlight all the best aspects of your subject.”
Choose a background that brings out the important aspects of your image. Image by Gulia Efremova.
We reached out to seven artists spanning all manner of photography subjects — from lifestyle to fine art — to learn their top tips for choosing a background. We’ve covered traditional studio backdrops, such as fabrics and surfaces used by food and still life photographers, and we’ve also included backgrounds you find on-location, including landscapes or building walls.
Tips for Choosing a Background in the Studio
1. Re-purpose Old Materials
Re-purpose surfaces for an authentic, rustic background. Image by Joanna Wojewoda.
“Surfaces are everywhere in our day-to-day lives, so look around and use what’s easily available before sourcing additional backgrounds,” the food, still-life, and travel photographer Joanna Wojewoda suggests. “For example, you can re-purpose fabrics and surfaces, such as curtains, tabletops, or even worn-out slabs of wood that were once an outdoor bench.’
“Also, keep an eye out to see what your neighbors are getting rid of. Some of my favorite backgrounds have been ones I found on the curb. You can also get creative and use different techniques of applying paint using a paintbrush, sponges, or cloths to create different looks for backgrounds.’
“Another option worth looking into is getting samples of different surface slabs from places like Home Depot. Bear in mind, while Home Depot will have affordable options, the slabs might be heavy, which isn’t the best option when you’re shooting on location.”
2. Experiment with Color
Backgrounds with bright, solid colors are in demand. Image by zarzamora.
3. Go Minimal
“Color blocking and the overall use of bright and colorful solid backgrounds for product shoots seem to be all over social media for a variety of different brands,” Joanna Wojewoda continues. “Some have done it for a while, and some are just beginning, but it looks really lovely when done well. For example, Greenhouse Juice, Good Sunday, and a health product company called Platinum Naturals (that I have been working with for the last few months) have all jumped on board with these bright colors.”
Minimal background styling makes the subject more pronounced. Image by Carmen Mitrotta.
“I love to use colored paper backgrounds to create minimal sets for my subjects,” fashion and still life photographer Carmen Mitrotta tells us. “My artistic direction tends toward organic subjects, light colors, and clean, minimalist styling.’
“You can find many types of paper, with different colors and weights, at your local stationery store for these kinds of studio shoots, or you can go to a hardware store and be inspired by metal or plastic building materials. Or you can browse a fabric shop! Each texture reacts differently when exposed to light, and often, your camera captures something you can’t see with the naked eye.’
Make sure the colors of your background properly represent your subject. Image by Nadia Cruzova.
“There is no general rule for choosing a background, but you always have to match the colors of the subject with the type of background. You can use painted backdrops, colored paper backdrops, theatrical scenery, or even the sky. There are infinite possibilities.’
“The backdrop in any photo always has great importance, but you have to be careful not to use a backdrop that becomes more important than the subject. I think it’s important to have a clear idea of the final result you plan to obtain.”
4. Go Big
Make sure to add negative space around your subject. Image by Jimena Peck.
“Don’t forget to add negative space around your subject,” Denver-based photographer Jimena Peck advises. “If you are taking images of people, you will need your backdrop to be just a little bigger than you might think. It will give you more creative freedom, and it will also give your model/subject a little more room to play and improvise.”
5. Keep a Collection
Keep all of your background collections – handmade or bought. Image by Gulia Efremova.
As you grow as an artist, so will your background collection, so hold onto everything you make and purchase.
“Before I started earning money from my photography, I made backgrounds for myself,” food photographer Gulia Efremova remembers. “You only need plywood and acrylic paint. Sure, the result was always be unpredictable, but at the same time, it was enjoyable. I have lots of backgrounds in my studio today, and most of them are homemade.’
“These days, I like using a whitish-gray background, painted to resemble a concrete texture. Gray, like white, is an achromatic, neutral color. It can be combined with almost any color, so it can easily be used for shooting bright dishes and drinks. Gray backgrounds are universal, and they are a must-have for food bloggers and food photographers.’
“A black background is also a must-have for stock photographers. Bright objects always look more saturated and rich against a black background. And, you can’t make low-key, dark, moody photos without a black background. Various wooden surfaces, boards, and tables also work well for food photography, creating a cozy, at-home atmosphere.”
Start with those basics, including painted backgrounds, black, gray, and white backgrounds, and then build your collection from there. These staples work for any kind of staged photography, from styled still lives to portraits.
Tips for Choosing a Background on Location
1. Incorporate Nature
The time of day is essential when shooting in nature. Image by Dima Zaharia.
“My favorite genres of photography are wedding, still life, and sports — and I think the best background for this type of photography is nature,” Moldova-based photographer Dima Zaharia tells us. “Natural backgrounds are great when you want to convey the time of day in which the photo was taken. For example, grass with dew evokes feelings of early morning, as does sun filtering through the window.’
“The background colors, themselves, can also define the season — e.g. orange for autumn, blue for winter, etc. I always prefer to shoot natural backgrounds in the golden light of sunset because it imbues your image with a warm, pleasant atmosphere.”
2. Scout Your Spot
Image by Rawpixel.com.
Scouting your location beforehand allows you to prepare for anything out of the normal. Image by Prostock-studio.
“For outdoor backgrounds, the first thing I’d suggest is to make sure you scout the area beforehand and know how it’s lit, depending on the time of day,” Joanna Wojewoda says. “Food and portraits look their best when it’s overcast — softer light is usually much better than direct sunlight.”
3. Compose Carefully
Backgrounds are essential elements in the composition process. Image by Jimena Peck.
“Keep it simple,” Jimena Peck suggests. “Look at the lines, find empty areas, and make sure there are no odd things happening, such as lines coming out of your subject’s head or colors that don’t work well together. Backgrounds are key elements in the composition and framing of your images. Think about them as much as you think of the camera settings and the subject.’
“I’ve received such good feedback from clients and editors on my cleanest images. In an oversaturated world, being able to take apart elements and make them look simply pretty is key. We are past the 90s and 2000s’ aesthetic where ‘the more, the merrier’ rang true. Now, during this crazy year, I am thinking ‘the less, the merrier.’’
“Backdrops are your canvas, and you need to make sure your viewer’s attention goes to the subject and then looks for the rest. Start with zero, and build your composition from there.”
4. Bring a Backup
Sometimes a simple backdrop can paint the illusion of a staged photo shoot. Image by The Good Brigade.
Jimena Peck usually discovers her backgrounds on location by scouting for natural elements like rock formations, flowers, and landscapes. At the same time, she likes to come prepared with easy-to-use, outdoor-friendly backdrops.
“Sometimes, I love adding some glitter paper from the craft store or a crazy-colored bed sheet I found in a thrift store,” she tells us. “At one point, I started carrying a silver backdrop with me when I traveled, and I’d bring it on location for different projects. People loved that feeling of having a ‘staged studio’ in such an unexpected place.”
5. Consider a Shallow Depth of Field
Open your aperture to create a blur effect for your background. Image by Moha El-Jaw.
“Sometimes, when I’m shooting outdoors, I don’t use a ‘background’ at all,” the Spain-based photographer Moha El-Jaw explains. “Instead, I just use my surroundings and my environment, but I open my aperture so they’re out of focus.’
A blurred background creates a unique, mystical atmosphere. Image by pixelheadphoto digitalskillet.
“Just by blurring the environment, you create a totally different background than you’d get with a wider depth of field, while also creating a unique atmosphere. Something I find quite visually appealing is including unfocused plants and floral elements behind your subjects — that always breathes a bit of life and color into your shots.”
6. Create Negative Space
Empty space in your image allows room for the potential client to place their brand information. Image by Moha El-Jaw.
Even if you’re shooting in a landscape or urban environment, look out for empty space to incorporate into your composition, whether it’s the sky or a blank wall.
“Lots of image-buyers are graphic designers, and they tend to search for images with negative space so they can overlay text in the background,” Moha El-Jaw says. “I recommend leaving at least some space in your pictures that’s simple and empty enough to include readable text.
A simple background that accentuates the subject is timeless. Image by pink panda.
“That doesn’t mean your negative space has to be boring or plain. It can be warm and homey to emphasize a good cup of coffee or set the mood for an indoor lifestyle session. City buildings work well for a portrait on the street, while intense colors might suit an exotic food session.”
Tips for Choosing a Background Anywhere
1. Shoot with a Buyer in Mind
The mood of your image can be determined by your choice in background. Image by F8 studio.
Wherever you are, indoors or outdoors, remember to consider the needs of the client and end-user. “Your choice of background can entirely change the mood of your final image, and that’s a useful concept to keep in mind, especially when shooting stock photography,” Joanna Wojewoda explains.
Your choice in background will appeal to a specific audience. Image by Joanna Wojewoda.
“The background you shoot on can also determine how successful a campaign will be at reaching the target audience. For example, you can shoot asparagus on a modern white marble background, or you can shoot it on a rustic wooden table top. Both shoots have the same subject, but some people will relate and gravitate towards the image shot on white marble more, and others will prefer the wood.’
“In terms of my commercial work, I strongly believe that when the image is polished, the background very much depends on the branding of the client, the message of the campaign, the styling direction, and the target audience. Those are all things to consider.”
2. Prioritize Authenticity
Create a relatable vibe. Image by Pavlo Melnyk.
When the Stockholm-based photographer Ulrika Ekblom first started, she used mostly “perfect,” brand new-looking backgrounds, and these can be useful. But, over time, she’s embraced a more realistic, “lived-in” aesthetic.
“Much of the time, the backgrounds I use feel and look old, but I find that they breathe life into my photos,” she tells us. “I recommend going to scrap yards and keeping your eyes open wherever you go for backgrounds.’
“I use a lot of natural materials as backgrounds to create a relatable, authentic vibe. In the studio, it’s mostly wood, metal, wrinkled linen, or thick, coarse cotton. The colors are usually grey, blueish grey, or beige for the fabrics. And for the metal, it’s grey or stained black or rusty brown.’
Add a homemade touch to your image. Image by Ulrika Ekblom.
“When I’m shooting food, in particular, I want the dish in the photos to feel real, natural, and edible, and I think choosing backgrounds that also have a natural feel to them enhances that. For commercial food photography these days, these worn-looking backgrounds are quite popular.’
“If you are shooting outdoors, you can also find these natural, authentic backgrounds. It can be something like a blanket in the grass or a rock or a chair. I also love old houses with old walls that have not been painted for a long time, as they lend my photos that rustic feel.”
3. Match the Background with the Subject
Consider the subject and match your background accordingly. Image by Olha Afanasieva.
No matter what genre you choose — from portraits to lifestyle to food — remember to coordinate your background and subject so that they tell one cohesive story. “Because backgrounds affect the mood of every shoot, it’s important to first consider the subject and choose your background accordingly,” Kyiv-based photographer Olha Afanasieva advises.
“For example, a light surface works well when photographing summer vegetables and dishes, while darker and warmer surfaces are more suitable for autumn and winter dishes. The same holds for outdoor shoots. Natural backgrounds might be ideal for some subjects, but if it’s an urban theme, then concrete and iron might be better.”
4. Think Outside the Box
Make a generic background interesting through lighting. Image by Vasiuk Iryna.
“I think the biggest mistake emerging photographers make is using backgrounds that are too generic,” San Francisco-based photographer Lori Eanes tells us. “It’s important to push whatever you have as much as you can. If your background is generic, maybe try interesting lighting to hide it, or keep trying different backgrounds until you find one that does something for you.’
Lighting is an essential element in the success of your image. Image by Lori Eanes.
“Get creative. Sometimes, the best backgrounds are junk people throw away. Peeling paint and weathered wood are great. One of my favorite props is my old backyard fence that I cut up and use all the time for food shoots. I’ve also seen some retro styles lately that I think are interesting, like using 60’s style curtains as backdrops. I also like the idea of using weird, unexpected color combinations, and I love shooting through liquids and getting underneath translucent objects.”
5. Stay Practical
When traveling, include objects and backgrounds that are easy to transport. Image by Lori Eanes.
“Two things to keep in mind for commercial location shoots — indoors or outdoors — are weight and portability,” Lori Eanes continues. “I have a piece of marble I love to use, but it’s very heavy. You can find laminate or even vinyl replicas that are very good quality and lightweight.”
When in doubt, travel light and keep it simple. A background is meant to enhance your subject — not overpower the shoot.
Bonus Tip: Play with Mirrors
Create simple, unique illusions with mirrors. Image by Carmen Mitrotta.
“One the most beautiful trends I’ve seen lately is the use of mirrors to create illusions,” Carmen Mitrotta tells us. Whether you’ve chosen seamless paper or a natural landscape as your background, a mirror can give your photos a surrealist twist and a playful touch, so feel free to experiment.
Real backgrounds represent an authentic approach to your subject. Image by Jimena Peck.
Finally, no matter what background you choose, remember to trust your artistic voice and vision. “Express your uniqueness while picking your backdrops,” Jimena Peck urges. “Try not to rely too much on store-purchased backdrops in the beginning. Real backgrounds have real stories, like every other element in the image. With time, I find myself craving more daring, courageous images, without all those expensive studio backdrops. A little goes a long way when there’s a gifted soul behind it.”
Cover image by Jimena Peck.
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