Though it takes a backseat to the rest of your photo — literally — the background is still an essential piece to consider. Whether you’re photographing products for your ecommerce store, or you’re shooting you’re client’s portrait, it’s no easy feat to pick the right background.
For UK-based portrait photographer Mark David, this is something he considers on a nearly daily basis. His style? Muted grays that draw attention to the subject of the photo.
In the beginning of his career, he spent some time shooting free headshots of passersby. “My assistant at the time was holding a gray backdrop up against a café, and a woman who was a lawyer working in the area accepted the offer of having her photograph taken,” he says. “It came out absolutely fantastic. She loved the photograph so much that she even bought a high-resolution shot.”
Now, David is more purposeful about how he approaches his backgrounds — and he has a lot more experience under his belt to help him find the perfect shot every time.
David’s Approach to Photography
“I’m a portrait photographer; I suppose it’s editorial-style if you will, which leans towards fashion,” David says. But he doesn’t label himself a “fashion photographer” per se — he just shoots what he sees.
“There’s a fine line between fashion, portraiture, classic and editorial portraiture as well, and I think these lines can cross and blur which is why mine are like this too,” he says.
These days, David mainly takes headshots for actors. For these, he turns back to his signature muted gray backdrop. But he also notes the importance of the camera and equipment.
“There’s no substitute for the camera you’re using and getting it right,” he says. “The camera I’m using at the moment is a Mimir RZ67 Pro 2. It’s a medium format film camera.”
For David, he finds that film camera’s help his discipline behind the lens, as compared to his previous work with a digital camera. “There is a depth, texture and quality with tones that comes with shooting on film that you just don’t always get with a digital camera,” he says.
It also saves him time: “I don’t tend to spend lots of time in Photoshop, apart from some color correction.”
David’s setup also includes light reflectors, boards and flags. “I made a choice not to work with any strobes, as I am a fan of 100% natural lighting and environmental portraiture,” he notes.
David’s Signature Gray Background
Now well-established in his career and business, David still uses that gray background. In fact, he’s become known for it. And for him, it’s all about the background.
“Using muted gray has very little to do with the subject in the photograph,” he says. “They’re just colors I like. They range from very light gray to almost a blue-gray.”
David doesn’t venture away from gray very often. “In regards to working with different-colored backdrops, I have played it safe,” he says. “I haven’t been adventurous, but it works.”
“The photographs look fantastic, and the gray helps bring the subject in the photography to life.” – Mark David
David nods to photographer Annie Leibovitz as a point of inspiration. “I am a big fan of her work, and she would often use gray fabric backdrops,” he says. “The photographs look fantastic, and the gray helps bring the subject in the photography to life. It really does look so cool and very sleek.”
How to Choose a Background for Your Photo
David has learned a lot along the way:
“One thing you don’t want your background to be is distracting,” says David. “The backdrop should never distract the viewer’s eye from the main subject.” When shooting, make sure the product or object you want to feature shines.
“You don’t want loud, patterned backdrops, which would be distracting unless the subject of the image calls for that,” he says.
Mind the subject
Whether it’s portrait or product photography — or anything in between — always consider the subject of the photo and what feeling it will evoke for the viewer, both alone and in context of the frame.
“It has to work with the subject,” David says. “If I was photographing a technology product, the first thing that comes to mind is a pure white background or a plain background.”
Understand the lighting
“Lighting is then the next key thing on most photographers’ minds, including mine,” David says. “Think about the lighting, backdrops and use natural light to your advantage.”
“You must always have a clear sense of what you are going to be shooting, go with your instincts and think about how audiences are receiving your style. Try and project what you see in your mind,” David says. “Unfortunately there is not a set of rules; playing around and experimenting is vital.”
Represent the brand
At the end of the day, clients hire you to represent their brands. So while creativity is key, so is an attunement to the client and brand for which you’re shooting.
“It has to be brand-specific and in line with what they are marketing or how it looks,” David says. “David Bailey in the 1960s shot a lot of his models on pure white infinity background, which looked fantastic. White, for example, is fresh, clean and could be something that provides a connotation for the product.”
Post-processing, especially with a photo editor you can trust, can be the difference between a good photo and a great one. David also says it’s good to have this time away from looking at all the shots. “Time is something that can work to your advantage,” he says. “I had some time away from a shoot I recently did. Altering something on a photograph that I initially disliked made it my new favorite photograph just because I had some time away.”
David’s final piece of advice? “If a photo-shoot turns out exactly how you imagined it to then you’ve failed.”