Choosing a Backdrop for Portraits

Choosing a Backdrop for Portraits

From vibrant paper to hand-painted canvases, backdrops are indispensable accessories for portrait photographers. With so many options available, choosing a backdrop can be an overwhelming experience for budding portraitists. This article discusses three of the most popular types of backdrops used by portrait photographers.

Seamless Paper

A go-to for portrait and fashion photographers, seamless paper comes in a wide variety of colors and sizes. As its name implies, seamless can be used to produce the impression of an infinite background free of creases and wrinkles. Whether creating a clean, white sweep for an e-comm shoot or adding a splash of color to a fashion editorial, there is a roll and a size for you. Consider grabbing a Color Chart to help with your planning process. Seamless is the preferred choice for messy shoots because you can simply cut an affected area and roll more paper down. Use a utility knife rather than scissors to achieve a clean edge. Don't forget to recycle your used paper.

Savage Seamless Paper Color Chart
Savage Seamless Paper Color Chart

Depending on the size of your roll, seamless paper can be unwieldly to store and transport. If you are trying to figure out how to organize multiple rolls, check out this article. Always store rolls of seamless vertically to prevent warping their cores.

While seamless is relatively inexpensive, shipping can nearly double its cost depending on the size of the roll. If you plan on using different colors, consider stocking up when placing an order to consolidate shipping costs.

Pros: Many color options, consistent color and surface

Cons: Can be awkward to store or transport, wasteful

Fabric Backgrounds

If you are looking to add a bit of texture to your backgrounds, fabric offers a reusable alternative to paper. Storage and transport is also easier—with a caveat: wrinkles. A garment steamer is a must for anyone using fabric backdrops, especially thinner materials. Alternatively, if wrinkles would serve a creative purpose for your portraits, fabric is your best bet. The thickness of your fabric will also determine how light affects it. Fabrics like muslin can become translucent in bright environments. Thicker materials like velvet, on the other hand, can soak up light to create deep shadows.

Impact Solid Muslin Background
Impact Solid Muslin Background

Fabric backgrounds are also nice since they are often machine-washable, making them a more eco-friendly option than paper backgrounds. While you can adapt nearly any fabric to use as a background for photos, one of the benefits of purchasing dedicated fabric backgrounds is the integration of a loop to easily hang from a crossbar.

Pros: Easy to store/transport, can add texture, customizable, reusable

Cons: Light may shine through thinner fabrics, wrinkles, wrinkles, and more wrinkles

Canvas Backgrounds

From Irving Penn to Annie Leibovitz, painted backdrops have appeared in some of the most iconic portraits ever created. Photographers looking to add a touch of timelessness to their images should consider adding a canvas or two to their background lineup.

Savage Painted Canvas Backdrop
Savage Painted Canvas Backdrop

Hand-painted canvases can also be one-of-a-kind, setting your portraits apart from everyone else's. Unsurprisingly, they occupy the highest price point of the backgrounds discussed in this article. And while you could commission a canvas from a studio dedicated to creating custom backdrops, this will often be shockingly expensive. Fortunately, there are plenty of pre-made backdrops available at more affordable price points.

Although their support is more durable than most fabrics, you will want to be gentle with their surfaces to prevent damage. Canvas is also used as a support for printing photo-realistic surfaces and printed patterns for simulating walls or floors in images. These could be used to create the illusion of photographing on-location while working in a studio.

Pros: Unique designs, solid base

Cons: Expensive, delicate surface

Supporting Your Background

Choosing your backdrop is only half of the battle. Setting it up so that it looks its best in your portraits is the other half. For rolls of paper or fabric, two light stands and a crossbar is a common method. There are multiple kits designed specifically for this purpose to choose from or, if you already own stands, you can simply add a compatible crossbar. Alternatively, you can make do with two c-stands with grip arms to support cored paper―although this can be a little more frustrating to level compared to the simplicity of a crossbar. If space is a concern you can opt for a wall-mount system or an autopole system, which has a smaller footprint than light stands. Some background systems like Westcott's X-Drop series have their own proprietary support systems, as well.

Impact Pro Backdrop Support Kit
Impact Pro Backdrop Support Kit

What is your favorite kind of background for portraits? Share your tips in the Comments section, below!


Very informative! Is there a canvas bacground you would recommend for someone who shoots portraits in their apartment?

There are many Canvas background options that are fine in a small space. As for size it does depend on  the space  you are shooting in and if you are taking head and shoulder shots or full body shots. This is a few of many,