Classic Portraits

Here’s one tip for classic portraits: you can use classic backgrounds.

In the 17th century, that meant an elegant drape behind the subject, to provide:

  1. Nice texture;
  2. Elegance;
  3. A sign of wealth and comfort;
  4. A nice curve.

Somewhat like this:

1630 - portrait

You do wonder how people walked around in those Halloween costumes. But anyway, back to backdrops. Why not do that today?

My student Melony built this in her home studio.

Home Studio Backdrop System

Against a wall, two curtain rods: the back one with white curtain hanging from it, and the front one with red curtain. Both operable independently so you can open or close either or both. Easy, and it is not in the way of normal use of the room.

And with proper, light and white balance, this results in portraits like this:

Student Melony in home studio

That kind of setting is very suitable for family portraits. Even in 2010. Many times, I much prefer this to a standard white or black backdrop, or to a muslin.

I might even say especially in 2010. Tip: go to an art museum if you want to see great portraits.

How did we light that portrait?

  1. A softbox to camera left
  2. A fill light behind me to camera right


  • Why a softbox? Because it does not spill light everywhere, like an umbrella. Umbrella = safe; softbox = more controllable, and hence more for art.
  • Why the fill light? Because without it, even in a small studio, the non-lit side of your subject can get a bit dark.
  • And if the light is too bright even at the lowest setting? Move it back.
  • Could we have used a reflector instead of a fill light? Absolutely.
  • But will you sometimes want a roll of paper for a neutral, simple background? Of course. Having a drape does not mean you have to use it every time.
  • What kind of lens were you using? A prime (fixed) 35mm lens on a crop camera (the Canon 7D). That means effectively a 50mm lens, which is perfect for half body portraits like this.

So, a classic portrait does not have to be complicated: a few simple tools and you have great options.

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