“Can we have the background of The Beach at Sunset?” Dad says with a laugh. “Or maybe up in the mountains somewhere?”
“Nah.” I say as I change the Blue Old Masters Background to a solid black background. “I think what you really need is the one with the Bookshelves.”
Most of the Assembly Line Portrait Companies rely on cute pictures of kids for their bread and butter. These are almost always Prop Shots with a background to match. Most of these setups make no sense at all, but have still proven themselves to be good sellers over the years.
I have used props of spilled paint cans on a white background with spilled paint covering it and a small white step ladder-though I never really liked that one. Another odd background was The Senior Studio that had a brick wall covered with graffiti and then had the teen subject stand in front of it with a paint can in their hand. Yeah, I’d like a photo of my child as a criminal. please.
Seasonal Backgrounds are pretty much standard issue in the Assembly Line Portrait world-Christmas is the biggie, but Easter, Halloween, and even the 4th of July have their own backgrounds. These are usually super cheesy photos that do their best to incorporate every cliche known to man about their holiday. The Christmas background usually has a hearth and wreath and a Christmas tree, and maybe Santa peeking around a corner.
Real Portrait Studios have this bizarre notion that a portrait should be about The Subject, but then, they don’t usually have just backgrounds, they have whole set pieces. High School Senior studios will often have a different set in each corner of a room-things like lockers, staircases, tree limbs, and fountains. And they will have separate rooms for Formal, Casual, Outdoors, and whatever else they can think up.
I have worked with Traveling Studio Photographers who haul a ton of crap around with them. When you work with kids this is not a bad idea-those cute shot actually sell. But I do mostly singles and couples these days, with a few families thrown in once in a while. I rarely do little kids by themselves, and when I do, I tend to just focus on the kids themselves. My prop days are mostly behind me.
But backgrounds, I love my backgrounds. I have an Old Masters, a Solid Black, a White Muslin, and a Brown Mottled Muslin. I also have about twenty or so colored Gels-which are thin bits of plastic in bright transparent colors. While I don’t have the infinite palate of say, a Scene Machine or a Green Screen, I do have all the variety that I need. Besides the Scene Machine turned out to be a bit of a joke and using a Green Screen is just asking for people to spend way too much time making up their minds.
The people who sell Backgrounds want you to use hundreds of them, just as the people who sell props want you to have dozens of sets and be willing to buy a new one as soon as they can think them up. Three or four backgrounds are enough. In a pinch, one background is enough. Most of the Assembly Line Portraits Companies I have worked for have had one or two backgrounds and the bare minimum of lighting to go with them.
I tend to tweak my backgrounds a lot more than most of the other photographers I work with. I buy my own Gels and tie the muslin up so that the cloth drapes in interesting patterns. I like deep rich colors that fill the frame behind the subject and help with separation. I like large light sources that throw soft light across The Subjects. Most of the Companies are fans of Flat Light that evenly illuminates The Subject and makes every portrait they take look like an ID shot for the DMV. My goals are to do a little bit better than that.
For me the background is one of the most obvious clues that a portrait was created by a professional. Bright splashes of color or pure black or pure white give a portrait the feeling that some thought was put into it. Like George Hurrell, I want all the lights I can get my hand on. Good backgrounds are not that hard to do, but they do take a bit of practice and the desire to move beyond the normal Assembly Line Portraits fixed ratios.
One of the keys to success is to offer something the Subject has not seen before. There is nothing quite like that look of surprise on their faces when they see a brightly colored background in their portrait after they saw nothing but a black wall while they were being photographed.
As an Assembly Line Portraits photographer I am never going to have State of The Art Equipment, never have that wall full of backdrops to choose from, but I can still conjure dozens of backgrounds. I may only use two or three backgrounds with each Subject, but most of the time, two or three is all that I need.