05 August 2018

Doing a Background Check

Three components constitute an interesting street portrait: (a) an intriguing subject, (b) adequate lighting, and, last but not least, (c) the right background. Background matters! One thing that wrecks a street portrait is a cluttered background which will swallow up the subject and distract the viewer’s eye. It will also make the image look flat because the camera can’t capture the depth that the two eyes can. Therefore the photographer has to create sufficient visual depth by means of composition and subject/background separation. Most times, the right background for a strong, compelling image can be produced by slightly changing your perspective or blurring out a background.
There are two different types of background for street portraits, (i) meaningful and (ii) "meaningless" backgrounds.

(i) The meaningful background:

If one wants to photograph the subject in her or his (cultural, natural or work) environment make sure the background is equally as impressive as the subject, is part of the story, and adds value to the image. This is called an environmental portrait; the aperture could be f/5.6 or even higher (up to f/11 and more, depending on circumstances). If there is sky in the image, one want's to make sure the horizon does not cut through the head of the subject. Choosing the right camera position creates sufficient visual separation between the subject and the background which is essential to draw the viewer's eye to the subject.


Examples (i) - Environmental Portraits with Meaningful Background:

Matt Hahnewald Photography; Facing the World; photography; photo; image; Nikon D3100; Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8G; prime lens; 50 mm; 4 : 3 aspect ratio; horizontal format; closeup; portrait; portraiture; street portrait; headshot; en face; front view; bokeh; colour red; outdoor; high noon sun; colour; colourful; world cultures; cultural; character; personality; real people; human; human head; religious veil; human face; beautiful eyes; mouth; red lips; lipstick; makeup; traditional garment; shawl over head; facial expression; gesture; hands; consent; empathy; rapport; encounter; emotion; attitude; elegant; environmental portrait; ethnic portrait; tourism; travel portrait; travel destination; sightseeing; Taj Mahal; Agra; Uttar Pradesh; India; Islam; tradition; Indian woman; one person; female; adult; eye contact; posing; smiling; beautiful; incredible; gorgeous; fabulous; attractive; adorable

Matt Hahnewald Photography; Facing the World; photography; photo; image; amazing; spectacular; outstanding; fantastic; favourite; superior; excellent; interesting; Nikon D3100; Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8G; prime lens; 50mm lens; 4 : 3 aspect ratio; horizontal format; street; portraiture; closeup; headshot; three-quarter view; depth of field; orange; outdoor; sunshine; colour; colourful; world cultures; cultural; character; personality; real people; human head; human face; forehead; sandalwood paste; chandan; tilaka; human eyes; eyeglasses; facial expression; eye contact; moustache; stubbly beard; orange robe; priest; bareheaded; sikha; consent; empathy; rapport; respect; encounter; environmental portrait; travel; Hinduism; Brahmin; temple; Konark; Orissa; East India; Indian man; one person; male; posing; authentic; dignified; spiritual; horizontally challenged; Sun Temple

matt hahnewald photography; facing the world; head; face; forehead; bindi; eyes; beautiful eyes; teeth; lips; lipstick; facial expression; eye contact; hair; long hair; hairstyle; green; dyed; fashion; consent; emotion; fun; travel; culture; lifestyle; beauty; religion; style; cultural; hindu; hinduism; thaipusam; festival; celebration; georgetown; penang; malaysia; asia; tamil; malaysian indian; asian; two people; female; young; woman; photography; image; photo; background; face perception; physiognomy; nikon d3100; nikkor af-s 50mm f/1.8g; prime lens; 50mm; nifty fifty; 4x3; horizontal; street; portrait; closeup; head shot; three-quarter view; sideways glance; outdoor; color; colorful; posing; authentic; smiling; beautiful; attractive; charming

matt hahnewald photography; facing the world; character; head; face; eyes; catchlights; eyebrows; laughing eyes; mouth; teeth; lips; lipstick; facial expression; eye contact; hair; hairstyle; food; chinese; restaurant; eatery; consent; fun; travel; culture; lifestyle; prosperity; abundance; vitality; traditional; cultural; celebration; chinese new year; chinatown; bangkok; thailand; thai; one person; female; adult; girl; young; woman; image; photo; background; face perception; nikon d3100; nikkor af-s 50mm f/1.8g; prime lens; 50mm; 4x3; horizontal; street; portrait; closeup; head shot; full-face view; outdoor; color; posing; authentic; smiling; feeling good; thai smile; happy; pretty; cheerful; cooking; apron; duck; deep-fried; peking duck; cookee

Matt Hahnewald Photography; Facing the World; photography; photo; image; Nikon D3100; Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8G; prime lens; 50 mm; 4 : 3 aspect ratio; horizontal format; closeup; portrait; portraiture; street portrait; headshot; en face; front view; outdoor; colour; world cultures; cultural; character; personality; real people; human; human head; human face; eyes; human mouth; hair; background; bareheaded; facial expression; consent; empathy; rapport; encounter; environmental portrait; Jaisalmer; Rajasthan; India; Jaisalmer Fort; tradition; Indian man; artist; art; Asian; one person; male; young adult; eye contact; skilled; elaborate; determined; focused; talented; handsome; attitude; posing; proud; painter

(ii) The "Meaningless" Background:

If the street portrait is about an exciting subject, then one can try to fully eliminate the background, making it about the subject and her or his facial features. There are three ways to do this:

  • (a) You blur the existing (cluttered) background by opening up to f/3.2 or even more (up to f/1.2 if you have a good lens) thus creating a nice, creamy bokeh.
  • (b1) You direct and position your subject in front of a clean, colourful or uniform structure (e.g. a brickwall, a painted wall, a green or flowering shrub, a wooden fence, a roller shutter).
  • (b2) You improvise and use any impromptu backdrop (e.g. an umbrella, a curtain, any large piece of clothing).

Examples (iia) - Blurred Background:

matt hahnewald; facing the world; picture; photography; photo; image; illustrative editorial; natural frame; nikon d3100; nikkor af-s 50mm f/1.8g; prime lens; 50mm lens; 4x3 aspect ratio; horizontal orientation; street; portrait; closeup; headshot; full-face view; black; outdoors; color; real; human; head; bindi; face; eye makeup; eyes; eyelashes; eyebrows; talkative eyes; almond-shaped; eye contact; dust veil; veil; headscarf; secular veil; consent; empathy; tourism; travel; traveling; cultural; attractive; paltan bazaar; guwahati; assam; assamese; northeast india; indian; one person; female; beauty; adult; young; woman; posing; authentic; exotic; cheerful; captivating; charming; enthralling; fascinating; pretty; beautiful; bokeh

people; Chinese people; Chinese man; portrait; street portrait; headshot; South China; Guangxi province; Xingping; old man; Chinese beard; Li river; old fisherman; close up

street portrait; headshot; face; South Korea; Facing the World; people; person; closeup; black; East Asia; Jeju Island; Matt Hahnewald; haenyo; free diving; diving grandmother; diving mask; diving suit; seafood; woman free diver; turban shells; abalone; sea urchins; octopus; sea cucumber; tradition; wet; eye contact; eyes; Nikon DSLR D3100; Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8G; portrait

Examples (iib1) - Homogeneous Background:

matt hahnewald photography; facing the world; character; head; face; forehead; tattoo; facial tattoo; eyes; laughing eyes; eyeglasses; nose; nose plug; chin; teeth; facial expression; eye contact; bareheaded; consent; emotion; fun; respect; travel; culture; cultural; custom; lifestyle; optimism; anthropology; ethnic; tribal; indigenous; native; minority; adivasi; rural; traditional; ziro; valley; village; arunachal pradesh; northeast india; india; asia; apatani; asian; indian; one person; female; adult; elderly; woman; image; picture; photo; backdrop; face perception; physiognomy; nikon d3100; nikkor af-s 50mm f/1.8g; prime lens; 50mm; nifty fifty; 4x3; horizontal; street; portrait; closeup; head shot; full-face view; outdoor; color; posing; posing for camera; authentic; smiling; feeling good; positive; happy; cheerful; content; joyous

matt hahnewald photography; facing the world; head; face; eyes; oriental eyes; lips; lipstick; beauty; student; college; facial expression; eye contact; hair; long hair; consent; emotion; culture; lifestyle; bomdila; arunachal pradesh; northeast india; india; eastern himalayas; asia; monpa; indian; asian; one person; female; adult; girl; teen; young; woman; image; picture; photo; backdrop; face perception; physiognomy; nikon d3100; nikkor af-s 50mm f/1.8g; prime lens; 50mm; nifty fifty; 4x3; horizontal; street; portrait; closeup; head shot; full-face view; outdoor; color; posing; authentic; beautiful; attractive; sensual; angelic; captivating

Matt Hahnewald Photography; Facing the World; photography; photo; image; amazing; spectacular; outstanding; fantastic; favourite; superior; excellent; magnificent; breathtaking; Nikon D3100; Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8G; prime lens; 50mm lens; 4 : 3 aspect ratio; horizontal format; street; portraiture; portrait; closeup; headshot; three-quarter view; outdoor; colour; character; personality; real people; human head; human face; human eyes; mouth; teeth; lips; facial expression; eye contact; head jewellery; lipstick; red lips; bareheaded; consent; empathy; rapport; respect; encounter; environmental portrait; travel portrait; mosque; modern Muslima; young woman; Jama Masjid; Ahmedabad; Gujarat; India; one person; female; beauty; young adult; posing; authentic; smiling; beautiful; elegant; gorgeous; fabulous; attractive; soulful; adorable

Examples (iib2) - Impromptu Backdrops:

matt hahnewald photography; facing the world; character; head; face; eyes; mouth; teeth; expression; looking at camera; hat; sun hat; straw hat; body language; gesture; hand; resting chin on hands gesture; consent; fun; optimism; umbrella; protection; sunshine; jewelry; coc ly; lao cai; northern; vietnam; vietnamese; asian; asia; individual; one person; female; adult; young; woman; image; photo; natural frame; backdrop; face perception; physiognomy; nikon d3100; prime lens; nikkor afs 50mm f1.8g; 50mm; 4x3; horizontal; street; portrait; closeup; headshot; seven eighths view; blue; outdoor; color; vignette; posing for camera; smiling; beautiful; friendly; happy; cheerful; charming

matt hahnewald photography; facing the world; real; basic; life; aesthetic; head; face; eyes; catchlights; oriental eyes; mouth; teeth; expression; looking at camera; long hair; tribal; attire; clothing; consent; humanity; travel; culture; tradition; lifestyle; optimism; ethnic; minority; hill tribe; traditional; cultural; market; shop; can cau; lao cai; northern; vietnam; asia; hmong; vietnamese; asian; individual; one person; female; girl; teen; image; photo; detail; backdrop; nikon d3100; nikkor afs 50mm f1.8g; prime lens; 50mm; 4x3; horizontal; street; portrait; closeup; headshot; seven eighths view; outdoor; color; colorful; posing for camera; smiling; beautiful; pretty; saturday

matt hahnewald photography; facing the world; real; life; aesthetic; head; face; eyes; beautiful eyes; oriental eyes; mouth; lips; freckles; expression; looking camera; natural; hairstyle; top bun; fringe; bangs; consent; emotion; fun; travel; culture; lifestyle; beauty; arts; photo shoot; painter; artist; kathmandu; nepal; chinese; one person; female; adult; young; woman; photography; image; photo; backdrop; nikon d3100; nikkor afs 50mm f1.8g; prime lens; 50mm; 4x3; horizontal; street; portrait; closeup; head shot; full face view; outdoor; color; posing for camera; cool; cute; hot; authentic; beautiful; pretty; lovely; soulful; angelic; captivating; charming; classy; fabulous; smiling mouth closed; sexy

Background matters; an intriguing subject alone is not enough for an interesting street portrait. A piece of advice: find an interesting background and wait patiently for something to happen... Have fun!


High-res portrait photographs with full exif data, precise geotags and technical details in Matt Hahnewald's
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