Simple portrait with background

A simple portrait recipe for a portrait with background:

Find a background. Then, using manual mode, set your ISO, aperture and shutter to expose for that background – like here:

Balwinder (Photo: Michael Willems)

As you see, the outside is well exposed. The inside part will come later.


  • Remember to keep the shutter below your sync speed.
  • Exposing for the background means your subject is dark, if it is inside. So you will need flashes to light up that subject.
  • First,  add a main light, diffused – in my case through an umbrella, on our right. Measure that, and ensure its brightness is good.
  • Then add an edge light – in my case, a rust-coloured edge light, using a Honl Photo “Rust” gel, and a Honl Photo 1/4″ grid.
  • Remember, an umbrella does not have to be all the way open.
  • For the main light, shoot-through is best.

All that gives me this:

Balwinder (Photo: Michael Willems)

Note the curtain.

And the finished image.. now crop judiciously. Avoid reflections. And note the use of the rule of thirds in my image here:

Simple, takes a minute to set up. You can meter, or you can use TTL (I used TTL, with an A:B ratio).

The point here is not that kitchen portraits are the thing to aim for – the point is, a background adds (both the curtain texture here and the garden), and a portrait like this is easy to set up and quick to do.


High-key black and white

One of my favourite photo styles is this: high-key black and white, against a simple white background. This reduces the clutter to a minimum and starkly emphasizes the subject. Like in this image from the 20 November Mono, Ontario all-day workshop:

Tara, by Michael Willems

What I would say if I were to discuss this:

  • The image screams out “black and white”.
  • Clothes (white)  and wall (white) both disappear. I like the emphasis this gives the subject and the pose.
  • I like the 1970s feeling. I added a little grain to this image in Lightroom to emphasize that.
  • Slight, very slight, soft beautiful shadows are important.
  • Light is simple: one flash bounced behind me.
  • Of course you use exposure compensation and the histogram to check your exposure. But you knew that. Hit the right side (just).

Try a portrait like this! All you need is a white wall, a camera, an on-camera flash, and a model in white.