How to Create Portraits that Captivate and Intrigue – Digital Photography School

A Post By: Darren Rowse

Yesterday as I wrote about an old professional photographer friend taught me about using a zoom lens as a compositional tool I was reminded of another influence that he had upon me – that of always considering the background and surrounds of your portrait subject.

Image by Blazej Mrozinski

I remember looking through one of his portfolios one afternoon and marveling at the way he was able to create shots that were just so…. interesting.

He was the type of photographer who produced portrait images that you just couldn’t glance at – you were captivated by them, really drawn into the image.

I remember trying to pick his brain as to how he did it and after a few moment of thinking he replied:

“I spend more time thinking about the background in my shots than thinking about the main subject.”

With that in mind I worked back through some of the images in his portrait portfolio again and realised that he was right – image after image featured subjects surrounded by well considered and interesting backgrounds.

Image by orangeacid

  • The backgrounds gave context to and told the stories of the subject.
  • They didn’t overwhelm or distract from the subject – but gave meaning to it and brought them alive.
  • Sometimes the surrounds of the person communicated who they were and sometimes they left you intrigued – wanting to know more

Image by an untrained eye

I came away from that experience challenge to consider the backgrounds and surrounds of the people I photographed and found myself thinking less about how to pose people but thinking more about what scene to put them into.

Image by

PS: I’m not suggesting this is the only or even best way to take portraits. There’s certainly a place for minimalistic portraits too which isolate the subject – but I think many photographers could learn a lot from considering their backgrounds more.

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