Lesson 8 of 68
In Progress

The secret to getting the subject to “pop”

We’ve talked about ‘directing’ our viewers eye quite a bit so far. We learned in the Rule of Thirds lesson that our eyes naturally want to go to certain places in the image. We learned about leading lines and negative space … both of which add emphasis to our main subject.

But there’s one more tip that can be BIG on impact. And judging by how little I read about it, it might just be a secret of sorts.

In fact, it’s something I stumbled on after shooting thousands of commissioned portraits. One day I shared this little ‘secret’ with a friend. I thought I was just sharing a simple little tip that might help him every now and then. But then he told me how much of a difference it made. I told it to another friend, and same response…big difference.

Even better, it’s crazy easy to implement.

Here’s the lesson video, featuring plenty of all my kiddos.

First what to do. Then why.

What to do.

Whenever possible, place your kid/family member/friend/(subject) against a mid-toned to dark background.

It doesn’t have to be a dark background, just dark-er. This includes all the mid-tones. By mid-tones, I simply mean levels of brightness that aren’t too bright nor completely black (although completely black is sure to make your lighted subject stand out).

If you imagine looking through your camera in black and white, the mid-tones are all the gray areas. All to say, try to avoid having a bunch of really bright area in your background.

Disclaimer #1: Now be careful. I didn’t say to not backlight your subject. I’m a huge fan of that, as you know (or will soon know). You can backlight your subject and still compose the image to where your kid’s ‘backdrop’ (specifically directly behind them) is of a neutral brightness or darker.

Here’s why it works.

In any image, the highlights get the attention.

The only time this isn’t the case is when the entire background is a highlight (the technical term for this is “high key”… for example, Gap does this all the time… but please keep in mind they are using $10k+ worth of lights to make these high key portraits perfection).

I’m not necessarily saying that there can’t be any highlights in the background. In fact, you can shoot on bright backgrounds all you want, so long as you can light the subject adequately (unless you’re going for a silhouette).

I’m just saying that your kid will “jump off the page” when he/she IS the highlight (the brighter part of the image).

Just remember…the viewer’s eye is always drawn to the highlights (exception: high key portraits…even at that, great high key portraits are lit so well that there is still highlights on the subject, AND separation of the subject from the background…we’ll get to this more in lighting. I touch on it in the video above).

Okay, at this point, let’s just let the illustrations do the work of explaining. Below is the pic we took of Payson against a bright background (well, wasn’t exactly screaming bright, but close enough). Keep in mind, Payson IS front lit as well, so that’s why it’s still acceptable.

Here’s the same shot, same lighting, just into the mid toned grass:

Granted, both cute and acceptable.

This because he’s my buster. But also because he’s adequately front lit in both. More pics are within the video.

Then we turned the camera around to where the light was coming into the camera lens. Here’s the one against the bright background. Notice it begins to wash out and contrast is greatly reduced:

Also note that Payson is most teething. Drool.

Anyway, same thing, but into a darker background (the grass again…and actually the sun peeked out, thus making even the grass bright. But there’s still a big difference in ‘pop’:

Still got the drool.

The sun went back under, so I grabbed another shot of Payson while Julie held him. Just to prove that all the beautiful warmth and punch was NOT a result of the sun (make no mistake, it’s often easier to get good skin tones on cloudy days than sunny days):

(Thx for wiping his drool, mom.)

In regards to the above pic, the video explains a bit about how the ‘pop’ becomes even more apparent because of the ‘separation light.’

Here’s what I also did whilst not filming. I took a pic of Trager in our living room into the windows. It was a cloudy day, so the sun was not streaming directly into the room. In fact, it was even spitting rain outside. What I want to point out is that all this light comes into the lens and creates ‘flare,’ along with a big ‘wash’ (reducing color tones and contrast). Check out these red ears:

Whew…pretty bad. Dark face, red see through ears.

Next, I simply had Kerbi hold up a green throw we had laying around on the couch behind Trager. Same place. Same time. Same light. Just a darker background which also bumped up exposure (shooting in Aperture Priority as this is what SPS students end up shooting in 98% of the time).

It’s not a great image by any means (because we still don’t have enough key [front] light), but much better:

Watch what happens when we put it ALL together (dark background PLUS key lighting on the subject):

Ahhhh… there’s those blue eyes, those clean skin tones, those beautiful catchlights. And your eye goes nowhere but to Trager’s face…no competition in the background. That’s more like it.

Now, we will definitely be talking about how to create good images with bright backgrounds. It just takes more commitment and work to do, but can be fabulous.

I’ll put it another way. Maybe this will drive it home.

You can have bright backgrounds. You just need equal amounts of light on your subject.

Otherwise you’ll be creating a silhouette image if you expose for the background. If you expose for the subject, then you’ll undoubtedly ‘blow out’ your background (meaning your background will be so bright that all detail is washed out).

This is precisely why so many get frustrated when they try and take a ‘portrait snapshot’ into a sunset. They can’t get the two to mesh. Indeed, you can’t without adding light onto your subject. Either you expose to get the beautiful sunset and leave the person dark, or you expose to brighten up the person and thus are left with a blown out (white) sunset.

Just keep in mind, to reiterate, there are plenty of instances where the bright background is NOT the source of the light. In this case, you’ll have much better results, because there’s still a decent chance the lighting on your subject is good light. Still, if that background is blazing bright, you’ll need to add some front light on your subject to balance things out.

All right folks, thanks for being here! If you have questions, insights, discoveries…please head to the Facebook Group.

Cyber Monday Sale!

Get the rest of the Photo Fix for 50% Off!

Get the Photo Fix

Online & Self Paced

Show up in your pj’s. And since all lessons are self-paced and access is unlimited and LIFETIME, you also get to show up whenever you want. 

Seasoned Like A Pro

Don’t just learn your camera. Learn the vital keys of composition, natural light, posing, shooting in manual, and editing.

Busy Parent Proof

We focus on the 20% of photo secrets that make 80% of the difference. This is your shortcut to taking pro quality pics.

Gracious Community

Our community is widely known as the friendliest photography community on the web. Ask questions, get feedback, be inspired.

Get the Photo Fix

Or Learn More