Hack 27 Create Soft Background Portraits

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Do professional portrait photographers use special lenses and accessories to soften the backgrounds in their portraits? No, they don't. They manipulate the depth of field, and this hack will show you how.

The previous hack showed how to create tremendous depth of field for landscape compositions. But when you're shooting portraits outdoors, this is usually the last thing you want. For these types of assignments, you want your viewer's attention locked in on the subject, not the background. The best way to accomplish this is to narrow your depth of field and focus your camera directly on the subject's eyes.

2.13.1 Why Soft Backgrounds?

When everything works right, the result is a dreamy, soft backdrop that makes your model pop forward, attracting all attention to her presence. Generally speaking, the first thing viewers look at in a portrait is the subject's eyes. The easier you make it for them to get to that spot, the happier they will be, at least subconsciously. Once they've viewed the eyes, they examine other aspects of the person until they're satisfied and move on. To get a soft portrait background, like the one if Figure 2-21, try to get some distance between the subject and the backdrop. Then, open your aperture to limit the depth of field.

Figure 2-21. A portrait with a soft background

Distracting background elements, such as a tree growing out of the top of the subject's head, is unsettling to the viewer. That's why you often want to eliminate or at least soften these elements.

Now remember, this is not a technique that you'll use every time you shoot a portrait. If, for example, you're shooting a baseball owner standing in his stadium, you might want the background elements distinguishable, because that tells a better story. So, soft-background portraiture is a technique to use only when appropriate for the assignment.

Here are a few tips for creating a soft background for your portrait:

Use a telephoto lens.

Long lenses, a nickname photographers have given to telephoto lenses, inherently have shallow depth of field. If you're using a digital point and shoot, extend the lens to its greatest telephoto setting?usually, the equivalent of 105mm on film cameras.

Digital SLR users have it much easier in this regard, because they can attach lenses that give them the focal-length equivalent of 200mm or more, which is much better for softening the background.

Open up the aperture.

The wider the aperture (f-2, f-2.8, etc.), the narrower the depth of field. Use Aperture Priority or Manual Exposure mode to set your aperture to its widest setting. If you don't have these modes on your camera, look for Portrait mode in the menu of options; it will set the correct aperture for you.

Choose a background with few distracting elements.

You'll find it much easier to soften a background of green foliage than you will a marina full of boats with masts. Look for backgrounds that make your job easy.

Create distance between the subject and the background.

If you stand the model up against a wall, you don't have a very good chance of softening the background's texture. The more distance you can put between your subject and the background, the easier it is to soften. I like at least 10 feet, but if I can get more, I use it.

2.13.2 Final Touches

Now that you have your technical ducks in a row, compose the picture and focus on the model's eyes. After a few frames, review what you've shot on the LCD monitor. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how different this composition looks, compared to portraits you've taken in the past.