The best thing about shooting location portraits? You have plenty of control. If you don't like your subject's outfit, put it in shadow. Subject in a grumpy mood? Try a glass of chardonnay. Smile resembles a scowl? Go for a backlit silhouette.
Oddly enough, though, when it comes to backgrounds for location portraits, many photographers throw up their hands and relinquish control. Often, they shoot where they find their subjects, against cluttered backdrops that, at best, contribute nothing, and, at worst, actively distract from the subject.
"And that's a shame," says photo portraitist Peter Bellamy of Brooklyn, NY, "because fixing problem backgrounds is often no big deal."
Bellamy, 51, should know. A former adjunct professor of photography at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, he produced 225 portraits for The Artist Project (Abbeville Press), his 1991 book that serves as a comprehensive collection of late-20th-century New York City painters. Now, he's working on a similar collection of portraits of American playwrights, some of which are published here for the first time.
Bellamy shares a few common-sense rules for better backgrounds.
Keep them simple. When choosing a background, the three most important things to avoid are clutter, overly high contrast, and excessively bold colors. Each can draw attention from your subject. Search, instead, for simple, flowing lines and a feeling of space or depth.
Before shooting (especially indoor portraits), remove objects that don't somehow comment on your subject. "Declutter and clean up," Bellamy says. "Backgrounds should complement not compete."
He often removes paintings, table lamps, and anything that suggests the everyday: tissue boxes, televisions, computers and other electronic gadgets, consumer goods with commercial logos or type, and any object that's too brightly colored. Less is usually more. That said, though…
Add objects if they help define space or suggest personal qualities of your subject. Bellamy puts it succinctly: "In portraiture, there's no such thing as an inanimate object. Every element of a background actively contributes to the viewer's feeling about your subject." Positioning the objects is crucial. "Carefully place things to highlight fore-, middle-, and background areas, and add a sense of physical context and space."