Is This Simple Mistake Killing Your Portraits?

You’ve got a nice looking subject, with some fun accessories and an interesting blouse, and still you wound up with a really crappy picture. That’s because the background stinks. Although we’re focused on the subject when we’re taking the shot, our viewer sees the entire scene (ugly background and all), and busy, unattractive, distracting backgrounds like the one you see above can absolutely kill your shot.

Want to see your location portraits take a big leap forward?
Start being really concerned about the background behind your subject. Either put the background so out of focus that it no longer becomes an issue, or compose the shot to avoid as much of the background as possible (one thing you could have done here would have been to get down really low, and compose the shot so the clouds on the right side become the background, instead of the tin roof, and boxes and yard signs, etc..

When you start really paying attention to the background, and you position your subject, (or your camera) to get a clean background before you start shooting, then you can focus on the expression and emotion from your subject, knowing you’re not going to get stung later by a distracting background killing your shot.

I know when this realization hit me, it made a really big difference in my portrait work. I hope you found that helpful. :)



  1. Hi Scott! Thanks for another informative post! This came particularly handy and 2018 is going to be the year I will dedicate myself to portraits (instead of mostly landscape as I was doing). I will try to keep your advice in my mind!

  2. I don’t consider the Kiln pad at the Morean Center for Clay a background that stinks – as the Director of Photography at the Morean Arts Center – I utilize this area many time to make great portraits of artists. I appreciate you coming to the Morean Center for Clay to see our historic facility, but think it would be nicer not to disparage a 100-year old arts organization – hundreds of local St Petersburg photographers who follow you, including me know this location very well. Thanks for all you do!

    1. Beth, i think anyone who follows Scott Kelby for a little while will know for sure that Scott would never ever offend any institution on purpose, and certainly even less one Arts institution such as yours. I believe what Scott meant was that on this specific picture, the “busy, unattractive, distracting background” was in fact bad. The way I understood it was that the image has a bad background and that it is not helping the final portrait. I’m sure the exact same background shot in a different way (wide open, different light, etc) would create a diferente photograph that would be completely different and possibly a lot better – but I guess you know it better than me since you’ve done it yourself.

    2. You have to choose to take offense; a little maxim I like a lot.

      To the vast majority of us who have no idea what is housed there, it’s some roofing and an old chimney. (Thanks for educating us about it just the same).

      I agree totally with the concept Scott was explaining; the photo sans structure in the background is more pleasing – the viewer’s eye goes to the face and there’s not much else to attract eye movement away from it. It’s mentally easier to dismiss the sky and focus on her and her contrasted clothing.

      1. It all depends on what your subject matter is Beth. Had the subject been the facility I’m sure he would have shot around the model.

  3. valid point about the background. If I’m being honest, you sorta did the model a disservice with the postprocessing on her arm in the final picture though — I’m not sure what happened but perhaps by either bumping the shadows or clarity it makes it appear hairy (which I’m sure it was not)

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