Useful Photography Tip #121: Use Contrast to Make Your Portrait Subject Stand Out

Chris Gampat Film scans from pinhole and personal 2014 (2 of 17)

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When it comes to shooting portraits, your aim for the final image should be to distinguish the person more so from the rest of the scene. This can be done in a number of ways and one of the primary ways is to use the bokeh effect. By blurring out the rest of the scene organically, the viewer is forced to focus on the subject that you photographed. While this is true, there are elements of the image that can make the subject blend in more with the rest of the scene. For example, their clothing type is extremely important. If you’re photographing a person dressed in camouflage against a background of similar colors, it may be tough to spot them and make them stand out. So for starters, try coordinating the wardrobe with the portrait subject.

But beyond that, adding lighting to the scene is a great way to make your subject stand out even more. The image above is from some of my personal work featuring my friend Dane in a suit. To make him stand out from the rest of the background, I added artificial lighting in just the right spot. The light made him and his clothing stand out from the otherwise dark background. The light also hit the wall that he was leaning on and separated that from his body.

Add into the scene the fact that the light also illuminated his skin and you’ve got yourself a portrait subject that stands out from the scene and forces you to focus on them. But you don’t necessarily need artificial light to do this–you just need to provide lots of contrast. If you’re outdoors, you can backlight a subject and expose for the shadows to make them stand out from what will otherwise be a very bright and washed out background. Sure, you’ll lose the highlight details, but all that matters is that you make your portrait subject stand out.