The white background effect is refined, professional, and artistic. It has a host of uses, from product and macro photography to landscape and wildlife – but nowhere is the look more popular than in portraiture, where a bit of high-key magic can transform a boring snapshot into a pro-level portrait.
However, while white background portraits are highly sought after, they can be challenging to create, and that’s where this article comes in handy. Below, I explain how you can capture these portraits in a variety of scenarios, including outdoors and in the studio. I also explain how you can improve your results with some careful post-processing; that way, you’re able to consistently recreate a magazine-quality professional effect.
How to Capture Portraits with White Backgrounds:
Creating a White Background: The Basics
If you want to capture a portrait with a white background, it’s important to understand a key concept: The background must be brighter than your main subject. In other words, you need a (relatively) dark portrait subject, and a (relatively) bright background.
That way, you can set your camera’s exposure to give a bright portrait subject. This will make the background brighter. And because it was already bright to begin with, it’ll turn pure white.
Note that, in order to expose for a bright portrait subject, you’ll either need to do a lot of experimenting, or you’ll need to carefully meter off your subject. If you decide to go the metering route, you’ll want to fill the frame with your subject, then take note of the camera’s recommended exposure settings.
(Shooting in Manual mode is best for this because you can quickly dial in your preferred settings.)
And once you’ve taken your first shot, look at the camera LCD. Ask yourself: Is my subject nice and bright? Is the background pure white? If one or both of these questions gets a “No,” then you’re going to need to boost your exposure. Try dropping your shutter speed or widening your aperture. If you’re set on the shutter speed and aperture you’re already using, then you can crank up the ISO, but be careful – higher ISOs will add noise to your images.
Now let’s look at a few practical scenarios where you might want to produce a white background:
How to Create a White Background Outdoors
Creating white backgrounds when shooting outdoor portraits (with only ambient light) is tough to pull off.
Most objects can’t really be turned into a pure white background without seriously overexposing – and this will make your portrait subject look terrible. For instance, if you try to photograph a person in the shade with a sun-drenched tree as the background, you’ll end up creating a very, very overexposed image.
That said, it is possible to create white backgrounds when shooting outdoors. You just have to use the sky.
First, position your subject so that all they have is the sky behind them. This might mean taking your subject to a hill or a field. It also might mean that you (the photographer) need to crouch down low to remove everything else from the scene.
Then, if you expose for your portrait subject, you’ll get a pure white background – as long as the sky is sufficiently bright.
I recommend creating this type of portrait on cloudy days because a cloudy backdrop is very easy to make white. (After all, it’s almost pure white all on its own!) Note, however, that cloudy backdrops work best in the middle of the day when the light is stronger.
You can also create a pure white background when the weather is clear, but I recommend you shoot late in the day and position your subject in front of the sun. That’s because you want the brightest part of the sky in the background; after all, the brighter the background, the easier it is to blow out.
But make sure you don’t actually include the sun in your photo. The sun is just too powerful for modern cameras to handle, and it’ll either cause flare or blow out your photo completely. Instead, hide the sun behind your subject or put it off to the side, just outside the frame.
How to Produce a White Background with One Flash
If you want to create a white background effect using flash, you’re in for a treat – it’s really, really easy. I’d recommend using two flashes, but one can work as long as you’re willing to get creative.
First, position your subject in front of something white: a white wall, a white curtain, or some white paper. You can even use a white diffuser, though it has to be big enough to cover the area behind your subject.
Then take your flash and place it behind your subject so it’s pointing at the background. Note that you can modify the flash with a diffuser, but you don’t have to; it pays to experiment with different options.
Take a test shot, and look at the background. Is it sufficiently blown out? If not, you’ll need to increase your flash power or you’ll need to move the flash closer to the background.
Make the necessary changes. Then take another test shot. If all goes well, you should get a beautiful, pure white background, though your subject will probably be a silhouette. If that’s the case, don’t panic, because it’s easy to fix.
All you need to do is take a reflector and place it in front of your subject. Any neutral white material will do, though I recommend using a big white poster board because it’s cheap and easy to deal with.
Finally, take a photo while holding the reflector in place. The light from the background will be bounced right back up into your subject’s face, giving you the perfect exposure for your portrait.
How to Create a White Background Portrait with Two Flashes
If you have two flashes to work with, producing a portrait with a white background is even easier. Simply do everything that I’ve described above – position your subject in front of something white, put a flash behind your subject, and take a test shot to make sure the background is looking good – but then, instead of placing a reflector in front of your subject, use the flash.
You do have a few options. You can place the flash directly in front of your subject, or you can place the flash slightly off to the side at a 45-degree angle.
Both of these approaches look nice, so I recommend you try them out and see which one gives you the look you’re after.
Post-Processing a White Background for Stunning Results
One final tip: No matter your level of experience, you should be carefully editing your files. It doesn’t have to take long – but it’s something you should do for every single one of your white background shots.
Open up a photo in a post-processing program (Lightroom is my favorite, but ON1 Photo RAW or Luminar will also work). Then carefully check the whole image. Make sure that every part that’s supposed to be pure white is pure white.
If you come upon an area that’s not pure white, you can try to push up the whites via your exposure sliders. If the whole background needs a bit more brightness, this should do the trick.
But if part of the background isn’t white because there was an object behind your subject, then I recommend getting out the Clone tool and simply cloning in a white area where the darker spots appear. That way, you’ll have a beautiful, white, non-distracting background!
Capture Beautiful Portraits!
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be able to confidently capture photos with white backgrounds and well-exposed subjects whether you’re shooting outside or indoors.
Just remember to spend some time practicing with various lighting setups. That way, you’ll be prepared to create gorgeous portraits with white backgrounds no matter the shooting scenario.
So find some portrait subjects and see what you can create!
White Background Portrait FAQ
How do you make a portrait with a white background?
Position your subject in front of something bright, such as a white backdrop lit by a flash. Expose for the person, and the background will be blown out.
What can I use as a white photo backdrop?
You can use anything! You can buy a white backdrop, but you can also rely on white sheets, white walls, white doors, or even a bright sky.
How do you light a white background?
Simply point your flash at it. You’ll generally want to position the flash off to the side so it stays out of the frame, though you can also consider putting it below and behind your subject.
Can you make a white background outside?
Yes, you can! Get down low or position your subject above you so that you’re shooting with the sky in the background. Then expose for your subject, and the background will be blown out into a pure white wash.