I’ve said many times that the background in a picture is just a backdrop that’s its job is to not ruin the portrait. Well, this time I’m backpedaling a little. The right background or environment or details for your picture can really help explain about a person and give them context and a bit of a story in a single image. This sort of environmental portraiture is my favorite kind of work.

Descriptive Details

If you can include details that are descriptive without being distracting then it can be worth including them in your picture. But don’t go overboard, and don’t include them for the sake of having them. Do your best to natural include those details.

In this portrait, the couple own a bookstore and cafe, so including the bookshelves and the salt and pepper shakers on the table make sense and make a much more intriguing picture than simply shooting on a plain background.

The place in this picture doesn’t look like much–just a corner of a dark room where chocolates are made. Including the trays of candies is on the right track, but it’s the clean white aprons that really tell you these women are cooking something. Without the aprons, it’s a lot more ambiguous.

This portrait is simpler, just a man with a single prop. But the way the cards are held in his hand make it clear that he knows how to control them with skill. The sleeves are rolled up to indicate there is nothing hidden there. The knowing twinkle in his eye says he knows something you don’t know. Have you figured out what he is, yet? The little details speak volumes about this man and his passion.


When you have the opportunity, consider what details in a place complement your composition. Don’t include stuff for the sake of it, and don’t include too much, but the right kinds of things and places can make a more interesting and important portrait.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.