Using Color to Create the Perfect Background for Your Portrait Photography

Photo collage with portraits of different people isolated over colored backgrounds

Color is one of the most important components of portrait photography. Both the subject and the photographer need to put serious thought into how different color choices will impact their results. Color, in particular the interplay of subject and background, forms the foundation of a striking photograph.

To understand how to properly work with color in portrait photography, we must first consider how photography differs from other artistic mediums. Let’s take a closer look at that right now.

Evoking Emotion Through Vision Rather Than Backstory

Photography is one of the more deceptively complex forms of artistic expression. Most artistic endeavors give practitioners an almost magical level of control over their output. A painter working on a photorealistic portrait can simply decide to alter the environment or add whatever embellishment he wishes. Sculptor’s have a similar level of freedom as they create as much or as little of their subject as they desire.

People often assume that photography is a less challenging artistic medium due to the fact that we are seemingly just capturing a moment in time. However, this is far from how a professional photographer operates. We seldom find objective emotion or meaning in any given scene. A lot of what makes special moments in time special is the connections brought to it by the setting. We usually see people through the subjective lens of time spent with them. A camera’s lens is a very different thing.

Professional photography studio with gray walls and floor. Empty armchair and lighting equipment on tripod stands

Consider a woman who’s commissioned a photograph for her daughter. The woman is wearing a necklace given to her by her own, now deceased, mother. The moment is inherently moving for anyone who knows the reasoning behind all of the choices made for the portrait. However, an outside observer may well just see a woman wearing a necklace.

One of the main artistic strategies of photography comes from using deliberate choices and techniques to convey this type of emotion to outside observers. Someone seeing the photograph should see the combination of sorrow and joy in the woman’s eyes and expression. And the central foundation which a photographer will use to do so is the background. More specifically, the photographer will want to use color to help choose the right background.

How Different Types of Color Influence Mood

You may wonder how color can help convey elaborate emotion. However, it’s well known that color influences people’s emotional state. Before looking at how specific colors influence emotion it’s important to consider saturation and brightness as well. The combination of these two elements can evoke a lot of emotion from people.

Cartoon face expressions illustration different color emotions

Saturation describes the intensity of hue as it climbs from grey to a more vivid color. Brightness describes how light or dark something is. People exposed to colors that are low saturation but high brightness often feel relaxed. Meanwhile high saturation and low brightness often have an energizing effect on viewers.

You can keep the rules about saturation and brightness in mind as general advice. However, it’s also important to remember that specific colors often carry a very specific meaning for people. You should try to concentrate on what the average viewer will feel when looking at a portrait. It’s also a good idea to consider how different cultures might find varying meaning within the same image. For example, in the west orange is often associated with autumn. People think of sunsets in fall or pumpkins. But in many parts of Asia people will instead associate orange with the common sight of a monk’s robes.

It’s best to give individual attention to the more popular colors you want to work with. It’s often a good idea for the subject and the photographer to discuss why a particular backdrop will work. The following examples will usually lay down a solid foundation to start the discussion.

Grey Hues Often Create a Feeling of Softer Seriousness

Portrait photo of blond woman with long curly hair smiling and standing with hands in her pockets isolated over grey background

We can return to the earlier example of a woman who wants to preserve a picture of herself for her daughter. She wants to express both love for her daughter and respect for her own mother. A lower saturation into grey would help a backdrop create a stark contrast for her mother’s jewelry in the picture. It would also help convey a feeling of seriousness. A lighter grey tone will also convey a certain softness to the audience.

Red Conveys Passion of All Sorts

Portrait of woman in red dress photographed on red background

Red is one of the rare examples of a color which tends to transcend culture. It’s the most primal color of humanity as a whole and quite literally the color of our life in the form of blood. Red is usually associated with intense feelings and passions. This can be in a positive or negative form depending on how it’s framed.

In the context of portrait photography, we seldom seek to evoke a feeling of anger. Instead, red is more often used to convey a passionate love. For example, consider the archetype of a woman in a red dress holding a rose. The color red evokes passion. And using red in a backdrop can help evoke that same feeling from a viewer.

Pink Shows Love in a More Gentle Form

Portrait of mother in light clothes and daughter in pastel pink shirt isolated on pink wall background in a studio

Pink backgrounds also convey love. Pink is itself a softer form of red. Likewise, pink usually evokes a more gentle type of love. Think of the love a family shares for each other. Pink is the color of a shyly given gift on valentines day. It’s the color of a mother celebrating the life and love she feels for her child. And it’s generally an easy color to work with when you want to evoke those emotions. Valentines day in particular has ensured people will naturally make the connection.

Purple Evokes the Fantasy of Royal Mystique and Childhood

Little girl in princess costume breaks through a colored purple paper wall and points with a magic wand

Purple’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. Purple tends to dominate a scene. There’s good reason why people often associate it with royalty. Purple, when properly incorporated, lends a sense of the unreal to a scene. It conveys a sense of palaces, princesses and magic. This can make it an ideal backdrop to a portrait which needs to convey those emotions.

Children in general tend to be a good fit with purple. In particular, purple is a great choice if a child is trying to show his or her love of magic and fantasy. The most common example is a little girl who insists that a princess costume would be the ideal choice for her picture.

Browns and Earth Tones

Studio shot of Hispanic businessman wearing a black suit against a brown background

Browns have fallen somewhat out of favor over the decades. However, this affords you with an opportunity to make a bold statement by using it as a background. People often assume that solid black is a neutral color. However, it carries a somewhat sharper edge to it than brown will. Brown helps to put emphasis on the subject rather than the background. It’s a color of earth and a more solid type of strength. This makes it ideal for a no-nonsense down to earth subject.

Green Can Evoke Nature or Money

Portrait of wavy-haired woman with folded arms isolated over green colored background

Green can make a powerful statement. However, you need to be careful when choosing the shade. A brighter shade of green will help guide people into a more naturally oriented mindset. When people see shades of green similar to leaves then they’ll think of nature. This is also good for highlighting elements of a subject, such as an interest in environmentally friendly technologies.

The main issue with green is that it can also be associated with money or greed. For example, people are sometimes referred to as green with envy. This means that you will usually want to stay with brighter shades of green in order to avoid that association. The closer the green is to the ink used in money the more the association with money will come up. An association with profit can be a great subject for photographers. However, it’s more rare in the context of portrait photography.

Blue Isn’t Necessarily Going to Make People Feel Blue

Serious authoritative bearded middle-aged man with folded arms standing looking at the camera against a blue studio background

People sometimes assume that blue might have negative connotations. Just as someone may be described as green with envy people are also called blue when they’re sad. Thankfully the color blue lacks the firm associations green has with money. This means that you really need not fear any automatic associations with sadness while considering a blue background.

People instead tend to associate blue with different emotions based on the specific shade. A dark blue is usually associated with masculinity. However, lighter shades of blue can fit in with other contexts. It’s often associated with summer skies and beautiful water. In this context blue backgrounds can lend an almost mercurial quality to a portrait.

Yellow Evokes All the Power of Sunlight and Spring

Cheerful African American woman wearing casual floral dress standing over isolated yellow background pointing at the camera smiling

Yellow is an intense color which evokes a lot of positive energy. It’s the color of the classic smiley face. Yellow is also associated with the sun and spring flowers. It’s a color of renewal and a particular type of delicate energy. However, yellow can also be somewhat overpowering.

Yellow works best as a background when the subject is also heavily accented in yellow. This helps keep them from essentially being overpowered by the intense background. Instead the subject acts as the spearhead for the larger message conveyed by the color choice. For example, a happy woman in spring floral would fit in perfectly with a yellow background. She’s conveying positivity and the feelings of spring with her clothing choice and expression. Because it’s a similar feeling to what the background evokes, a viewer will be sure to take in the whole message.

Final Considerations for Skin and Hair

Portraits of nine people with different skin and hair colors on colored backgrounds

Finally, it’s also important to consider how skin tone and hair color will work with a particular background. Some combinations essentially enhance each other. For example, red hair and green backgrounds compliment each other quite well. The same can be said for dark hair and red backgrounds. Meanwhile blond hair and purple backgrounds often clash.

Eye color is a more subtle matter. However, it can make an impact in some cases. For example, a blue background can bring out the blue in your eyes. But in general eye color will usually be a minor component within the larger image.

The greater consideration is how the combination of color and background makes the subject feel. Photographers put a lot of work into highlighting the feeling of any given scene. But the more emotion you have to work with the better. It’s always best to go with color combinations which bring out the emotion in a subject that you want to capture.