Anytime there is good light, I try to make a portrait. It keeps me sharp, and it’s fun. I often approach strangers when there’s good light and say, “Hi, I’m practicing my photography, and there’s some great light right here, would you help me make a portrait?” I’ve met hundreds of wonderful people this way, and made some fun pictures, too. Great light with a great subject makes it easy to make a great picture.

But getting a great background can make all the difference in the world. Let me show you how to get a good background almost anywhere on Earth.

Zoom in and drop down for a great background

I met these folks in the parking lot at one of my favorite beaches on the Oregon coast. They were good enough to take up my invitation above, but the good light shining in their eyes put the restrooms and signage directly behind them, and while they look great, I thought I could find a better background.

Levi_Sim Control the Background -1

Problem is, they’re on the way to the beach, and my wife is sitting in the car ready to leave — I’ve got to be quick. So rather than move my subjects (and potentially lose the opportunity), I just dropped to one knee.

Now, from my perspective, the roof of the restrooms is below their shoulder level and completely out of my picture. They are standing in exactly the same spot. Bingo!

Levi_Sim Control the Background -2

The key is you’ve got to zoom in for this work. If I did this with a 50mm lens on a full frame camera, I’d still see too much background. I’m standing about 15 feet away with a 75mm lens on my Lumix camera, which is similar to using a 150mm lens on a full frame camera. This not only eliminates the background issues, but it keeps a flattering perspective on my subjects. Shooting closer would make me point the camera more upward, shooting up their noses — not flattering.

When you need a quick background solution, dropping low and zooming in will probably do it. If you’re in the city, you can eliminate most of the pedestrian distractions this way. If you’re at the little league game, you’ll remove all the cars lined up on the street. If you’re at a popular park making portraits, you’ll isolate your subjects without playground equipment, cars, and other visitors. Give this a shot, and I’m sure you’ll get better backgrounds. Also, give approaching people a shot and you’ll have much greater adventures.

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