Studio Backdrops/Backgrounds

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By Steve Russell

When you look at most professional portraits you might think that the photographer had a really nice studio in a room of their home or even a really nice space in an office building or a retail building. The truth is that most photographers have their studios in old warehouses, garages of their home or other roomy spaces that are unfinished. In fact, all the photographs in this article, except the last one, were taken in my garage. Using an open, unfinished, uncluttered space provides the photographer with the greatest amount of flexibility in the setting up of backdrops, props and lights. This really isn’t any different from the sound stages in Hollywood and elsewhere where movies, TV programs and commercials are shot. The beauty isn’t in the surroundings of a studio; it’s the ability to shoot in a controlled environment where the photographer has almost complete creative freedom.

Other than camera, lenses and lights, probably the most important item is the backdrop/background. With outdoor shooting, the backdrop is going to be much more varied, but other than selecting the location and time of day, the photographer has little or no control over the background. With indoor shooting, particularly studio shooting the photographer is in charge and can select the background. Most photographers most of the time will employ a backdrop for portraiture photography. This begs the question of what backdrops should a photographer have if he or she wants to build a portrait studio?

Before I start, I know this is one of those subjects where there isn’t any right answer. What works for one photographer may or may not work for another photographer. So much of the choice of backdrops depends on the likes and dislikes of the photographer, what they want to do with their portrait photography and their subjects or clients. Because of this, I’m not going to make a list of the ten backdrops every photographer absolutely has to have. What I will do in this article is to tell you what works for me and why.

I really like high-key portraiture. The stark-white background and nothing going on in the image but the model creates a challenge for photographer in getting the lighting correct and making sure the background is white. There are two was to achieve this as demonstrated by the next two images.

In this image I’m using a white vinyl backdrop that is 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. I can raise the backdrop high enough to give me ample room above the subject and still have enough backdrop to bring it forward to cover the floor where the model is standing in the event I want a full length photograph. Even though the back ground is white, it’s still necessary to put light on it when shooting to ensure that the white background is white. Without putting light on the background (I use one of my strobes) the background will look grey in the photo. If I want a grey background I don’t put any light on it. Essentially, I have a 2-in-1 background.

The backdrop I used in this photo will always be white. In this setup I used a strobe light with a 53″ octa-box pointing directly at the back of the model. It’s a lot of fun trying to get all the lights at the correct power, but once it’s set up the way you want it, you’ll have a white background in every shot.

As much as I love high-key photography, not everyone likes it and that includes clients. And, frankly, not everyone looks good with a white background. It’s important to have a neutral backdrop as well. They come in all different colors shapes and sizes. My preference is a canvas backdrop with earth tone colors. These are available hand painted, very expensive, and computer painted, not quite as expensive. The backdrop in the image below is computer painted, canvass and 10′ X 20′. It has the added advantage of having 4 different backdrop looks. I can connect either end on either side to the supports and get a somewhat different look with each one.

Canvas backdrops aren’t cheap. A canvas, computer painted backdrop from the supplier/manufacturer I purchase from can cost around $800 plus shipping. You have to sell a lot of portraits to break even on a backdrop that expensive. Fortunately, I was able to buy the backdrop you seen in the photo above, used, from another photographer. One recommendation I would make is that if you’re looking to buy something, photography related, especially something that doesn’t break or wear out, look for used equipment from other photographers. Photographers get tired of used the same backdrop all the time or a particular backdrop no longer fits with the kind of photography that want to do.

Sometimes the best background for a photo is black. A black background is dramatic. It can convey a mood that no other background can. Black backdrops, like white and other solid color backdrops aren’t overly expensive. However, it’s not necessary to buy a black backdrop. The image above was taken at a ballroom dancing competition in a very large hotel ballroom using a Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash. There was no backdrop other than chairs and people. You can achieve a black background by adjusting the lighting. How to do that is another article.

Backdrops come in a wide variety of colors, patterns and materials. The variety seems almost endless and there’s no way I can cover all of them here. I will say that muslin backdrops are lightweight, easy to handle and inexpensive. I don’t care for them because they wrinkle and/or crease easily and it’s difficult to get them to hang flat and straight. You can get paper backdrops on a large roll. They are quick and easy to change from one backdrop to another. If you’re shooting a lot, tearing 20′ of paper off the roll every time you have a shoot can become expensive. But whatever works best for you is the best backdrop for you.

Photo Credits: All photos by Steve Russell

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  • Declan Carr

    I love your shots. Stumbled across your site by accident, but will be returning regularly. Thank you.