I bought a (digital) background. Now what?

I bet you love backgrounds as much as I do. You adore the brushwork, find the color harmonies pleasing, and think they'd be a perfect compliment to your portraits.

And you're absolutely right! 

But with the amount of choices of backgrounds, there is that debilitating moment of oh crap. How do I USE the backgrounds? 

I'd love to say there is NO WRONG ANSWER, but there sort of are. The foundations of art should be considered. Questions to ask yourself such as do these elements support my overall piece? Think more gestalt, and less detail when approaching background in relation to subject. 

  • Light direction (keep in mind this can be changed with some sometimes minor editing)
  • Contrast (does it compete with my subject in shape and density, in saturation, in tone?)
  • Storytelling (does it support or compete with my subject?)
  • Texture (does it compete with my subject or is it somehow repeated in in brushwork or pattern in my piece?)
  • Color harmony, value, and tone
  • Shapes (do the overall shapes and lines lead into my subject, support my story?)

Are you seeing a pattern here? 

The background is sounding more and more like an important SUPPORTING role in the overall scheme of things. 

This opens up an incredible plethora of opportunity to USE the background(s)!

Just to name a few:

  • entire background swap (think of a green screen setup but this works with most solid backgrounds in a controlled lighting environment)
  • background overlays using an existing photograph and simply layering the background over top changing the layer mode (this changes both tone, colors, and most importantly TEXTURE)
  • utilizing the "texture" palette in Corel Painter (one of my favorites!) for more advanced users who enjoy digitally painting their edits allowing the brushes to interact with your document
  • importing these as a "texture" in Adobe Photoshop (Michelle Parsley is the master here!) to interact with brushwork
  • masking out the pieces you want for controlled areas in your digital edit whether it be for a total replacement, or an overlay
  •  texture in clipping masks (hello, marketing!)
  • marketing and branding texture
  • color overlays
  • add a unique, fresh take on an edit you get "stuck" on by overlaying a background and masking out the subject, if needed

Where can I use this background(s)?

Most backgrounds unzip as high resolution jpegs. Some may arrive as tiff files. Most software allow for jpegs and tiff. However, I would not recommend using these on a phone. They're large and will eat up space and processing. These were designed for laptop, desktop, maybe tablet use. The most popular choices have been Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter but any software that opens jpeg and tiff will allow these.

How can I change the bokeh to match my subject if I'm not fully painting it?

I like to use Adobe Photoshop's Gaussian blur under the blur filters on a duplicated background layer. BUT, here's the kicker. I'll then add NOISE to match the subject after I find a level of blur I like. Some backgrounds have bokeh naturally painted in, others have sharp edges to allow more control for bokeh. Some were designed for photographers to use without the end game of actually digitally painting their image. The backgrounds with hard edges were designed more for those that finalize their masterpiece by taking it through a painting process such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter. 

How I Created Xia Jumping

In this composite, I took a photograph of my daughter jumping on a trampoline. I love grey backgrounds because they're easy to either OVERLAY a texture (try soft light or multiply!) or extract the subject for quick background swaps provided the lighting is controlled strobe (with a hair light). In this case, I'm going to extract the background for a full backdrop swap.

Using Adobe Photoshop 2022's easy peasy Select Subject feature, Photoshop literally masked her out with a few minor tweaks around her neck and toes. Once, this was nicely placed on a layer mask, I can now throw any background behind her to see what speaks to me. 

I'm looking for texture and line MORE THAN COLOR at this point. Remember, we can change color very easily (in Adobe Photoshop)! 

I'm looking through the Chocolates Remixed 2020 and settle on "dark chocolate."

Remember you can always EDIT the background if texture is too rough, or it's too distracting closer to your subject!

Overall, I kept coming back to this, so Dark Chocolate it is!

Using the mover tool in Adobe Photoshop I add Dark Chocolate under the layer masked Xia, and get here! Edit, Free transform to stretch and move. Remember what I said about editing earlier.

It's a good start, but it still feels like Subject PLUS Background. I need it to feel COHESIVE.

All together now.


Duplicate background layer.

Add gaussian blur.

Add noise to match subject.

Healing brush some distracting areas around her.

(Red areas showing distracting areas that I need to edit out)

For stronger color harmony, I simply used a color adjustment layer tweaking COLOR BALANCE matching her clothing.

Don't forget the lighting! This ties your subject into the background space!

Burned a shadow under her feet according to the lighting pattern on HER, NOT THE BACKGROUND. Now, this would be a simplified edit. I could always take this further with editing or paint it. But for today, she's a bouncing ball of joy over top of a Dark Chocolate background.


Here's another quick version using Dainty2

Or what if we threw an October Acids-22 over top just to change up some texture (layer set to multiply mode opacity around 54%)?

One could lose track of time...


Don't let your background be an afterthought. A well composed background can bring your vision together with minor tweaks (light, color balance, well placed lines/shapes). Also remember that you can edit backgrounds to match your subject! Just remember to make adjustments on a duplicate layer if editing directly. 




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