So, you’ve picked up some strobes to help light your subjects and are in the process of setting up your studio. This is a very exciting time: so much to photograph, total control of the lighting, what an opportunity…. but how to choose the right photography backdrop? How you shoot and what you shoot will affect your decision, as will your budget.
(Model with a black seamless paper backdrop)
Photography backdrops make your photographs pop
If you haven’t figured it out already – you soon will – most photographers realize that one of the essential features of a good photograph is the thing that nobody notices: the background. When it works, people “oohh” and “aahh”. However, if it doesn’t work, people can’t figure out why they don’t like your image. One of the secrets of any successful photographer is paying attention to what’s behind your subject. This applies to any photograph, not just those taken in the studio. You might want to consider purchasing commercial backdrops that can significantly improve the quality of your shots.
(Model with a white seamless paper backdrop)
Assuming you already know what’s involved in lighting a studio, the next question is what to use as a backdrop. There are multiple types and sizes with pros and cons for each. Backdrop mounting and portability are also necessary.
It is one thing to have a backdrop for use in your studio, but what if you are asked to set up somewhere else? How do you make your backdrop portable? What goes best with the subject? If you are shooting a white subject, you probably don’t want a white backdrop because the white may disappear into the background (same with black on black). The color doesn’t need to be complementary (although it helps if it is) but should provide contrast. Lighting tricks can alleviate some of this, but sometimes it’s just easier to use a contrasting backdrop.
There are multiple types of backdrops but they all function similarly. They all tend to be relatively thin and only intended as backgrounds (not designed for subjects to interact with). Then can be constructed of seamless paper, muslin, hand-painted canvas or vinyl. The most expensive, least flexible, and the fanciest backdrop is the cyclorama or cyc studio.
Seamless paper is a versatile and inexpensive backdrop and is a staple for many studios. They are available in many colors, with the most common being black or white. You can produce gray from white backdrops by altering your lighting setup, so a dedicated gray backdrop isn’t necessary. You can also modify white backgrounds with gelled lighting to created colored backgrounds.
(Product photo on a seamless white paper backdrop)
There are pros of using seamless paper: the look is clean, you can modify the background colors with lighting, and the images can be cut out for background replacement. The cons of using seamless paper are: the rolls can be awkward to transport if a wide size (even just from the store to the studio), the paper can be easily damaged, and the backgrounds have no texture. In addition, if you have colored paper, the background colors can seep into the edges of your subject.
Seamless paper provides flooring as well as the backdrop without a visible interface between the floor and the background. This makes it ideal for product photography as well as studio shots. The lack of a seam makes the image appear to float with an infinite background.
Muslin backdrops are constructed from a cotton fabric. They come in various weights and sizes and can be dyed in a single color, have color splotches, or be hand painted. Because muslin backdrops have been in use for a long time, some photographers don’t pay much attention to them. They are, however, very portable and generally look good. Another great feature is that you can easily wash them if soiled. However, you may need to clean larger sizes in a commercial machine. Muslin backdrops can look modern or retro, depending upon the style of lighting. They are a great addition to every photographer’s arsenal of backdrops.
(Model in front of dyed muslin backdrop)
Similar to paper, you can use longer muslin as flooring for the subject. Solid colors function much like seamless paper, but you need to be cautious about folds in the muslin as they can be distracting from the subject. Muslin backdrops produce many of the same effects as a seamless paper but are much easier to transport.
If you have ever flipped through a copy of Vanity Fair or seen images from Annie Leibovitz, you know the look of a hand-painted canvas backdrop. They look amazing. These studio backdrops are hand painted onto large sheets of canvas. The paint is done in multiple layers to give the perception of depth and texture. The ones used in many of the fashion or movie-star photoshoots tend to be specialty canvases that are custom made. The effort to paint the backdrops, and the large space required to create them, tends to make these expensive.
Hand-painted canvas backdrops provide a vibrant appearance. A lighting change does not generate this richness, but purely because of the reflective surfaces on the backdrop. The paint adds texture, and the various layers of the paint add depth and tonality you cannot achieve with seamless paper. Because they are hand-painted, each canvas tends to be unique.
(Cat in front of hand-painted canvas backdrop)
Vinyl backdrops consist of large images printed on pliable vinyl. Many images are suitable for a vinyl backdrop, but this form is limited to the vertical surface in the background. Flooring is separate. You can purchase separate vinyl sheets for flooring to simulate flooring (such as hardwood floors).
Vinyl backdrops can feature unusual or creative backgrounds. They are great for children, parties or events and are washable, so they work for different types of cake smash, food fight or spray images (be careful about the rest of your studio). Also, they are quite pliable so they can be moved about without much difficulty. Finally, they can feature images that appear three dimensional (like a bookcase).
On the other hand, vinyl backdrops are a little reflective, so you need to be cautious about how your lights are set up. You also need to be aware that the backgrounds are two dimensional even though they can appear to be three dimensional.
There are a few options for mounting backdrops. The determining factor tends to be the size and type of backdrop you are using, as well as the frequency with which you plan on changing them. In general, you want some ability to change and mix up the backgrounds.
The basic options for mounting are fixed bars or portable stands. If you have a permanent studio and never plan on taking any of your backgrounds on the road, fixed bars or rollers are ideal. You mount them on the ceiling or wall so that they are suitably high, and allow the paper or fabric to roll off. Mounting on the ceiling means the backdrop will be high enough for your tallest subjects. Framing can be done merely with conduit and small size piping. There are also large electrically controlled rollers available. The costs can range from very cheap to very expensive.
Stands, allow for flexibility of the configuration. Some stands are intended for backdrops and often come as a set with clamps included. With portable backdrops, clamps play an integral role in making the background smooth and even. It is particularly the case with muslin or canvas backdrops, but seamless paper also benefits from strategic use of clamps to ensure that it does not keep unspooling as you hang the rolls.
There are also pop-up stands that you can use for canvas or vinyl backgrounds. You simply clamp the background to the edges of a springy stand. There are multiple systems for this, and many come with their own backgrounds as a complete set.
Regardless of your backdrop choice, keep the subject at least 3 feet away from it to avoid casting shadows onto the backdrop. This all ties to the strategic use of lighting setups. Your goal is to have the backdrop disappear behind the subject, making it the center of attention.
Some backdrops, particularly white seamless paper, may need to be lit separately. If you don’t light the backdrop you may have uneven colors behind the subject that detract from the image or prevent the easy masking of the backdrop.
In general, keeping backdrops clean can be a challenge. Some are easier to clean than others. However, hand-painted canvas and paper backdrops can’t be cleaned without damaging the surfaces, while muslin and vinyl backdrops are easier to clean. You may need to wash large muslins commercially. It is also important that any washing gets done in such a way that the fabrics don’t become altered or damaged.
Choosing the right studio backdrop can affect the mood and overall feel of your images. My personal favorite is hand-painted canvas, but I have used them all (except a cyclorama) effectively. The use of backdrops work hand in glove with your chosen lighting setup, and you should consider both together. If used well, you can make your images pop by having the backdrops pull focus onto your subjects.