Tips for Clean Backgrounds

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Like many photographers, I prefer being behind my camera to sitting in front of my computer. Any steps that I can take to minimize the amount of work needed in post, I make sure to incorporate into my shoots. One way that I do so is by carefully choosing and lighting my backgrounds. Evenly lit backgrounds have endless applications and are not hard to accomplish with the right tools and techniques. Here are some tips for getting consistent black, white, and color backgrounds straight out of camera.

For inky-black backdrops, choose a material that will soak up as much light as possible.

Achieving a uniform, black background is the easiest of the options discussed in this article. Thick, non-reflective fabric is your best bet for soaking up the most light. In my experience, velvet is by far the best material for accomplishing a deep black background. Go to a fabric store and pick up the densest black velvet your budget will allow. Cotton, muslin, and polyester are also popular materials readily available in conventional photo backdrop sizes. You want to avoid anything that has a reflective sheen to it—especially if you plan on using strobes as light sources. Seamless paper can be used in a pinch, although obtaining a pure black will be more difficult and may require some adjustments to exposure in post.

Use a thick, non-reflective material and maintain distance between your subject and background for optimal results.

Choosing the right material is only half of the battle. Unless your backdrop is coated with Vantablack, blasting light on any surface is going to complicate your effort to keep things dark. The greater the separation between subject and background, the easier it will be to let it fall into shadow. Move your subject and lights as far as possible from your background for optimal results. Flagging excess light can also help manage spill.

Unsurprisingly, achieving an even, white background entails the reversal of many of the suggestions above. Seamless paper is the cheapest and easiest material to use for this purpose. The obvious benefit of working with a roll of seamless is that once its surface becomes dirty, you can just cut it and replace it. Choose your white wisely. You may be surprised how many versions of white paper are out there. My personal favorite for a neutral result is Savage’s Pure White.
To remove shadows, you will need to position 1-2 background lights between your subject and backdrop. If your goal is pure white, you don’t really have to fret much about overexposure. To maximize the spread of your light, you will want to position your light as far away from the background as possible without affecting your subject. Use a softbox or umbrella to manage spill light.

Shooting tents are perfect for product photographers.

If you are working with small objects, consider a shooting table or tent. If you are starting from scratch and don’t want to fuss with setting everything up yourself, there are kits complete with lights and instructions on how to achieve an even background.

Illuminated backgrounds can simplify your quest for an even, white environment.

You can also use illuminated backgrounds for medium-sized subjects. A comparable effect can be accomplished using a light source with a very large softbox. Just be careful to not overpower your subject with your—unless you are trying to create a heavenly glow.

If you are working on a large scale, your best bet is to find a photo studio with a white cyclorama. Frequently used for commercial shooting, cycloramas are less of a hassle, more durable, and larger than seamless setups. Many studios build lighting systems specifically for their cycloramas, further simplifying your process. Request a fresh coat of paint and you’re good to go.

Even lighting is especially important when lighting chroma key backgrounds.

Achieving a uniform color background is the most finicky of the options discussed in this article, though its approach is similar to that discussed for white. The trick is positioning your lights in such a way to avoid hotspots and gradients. The most effective approach is to use a pair of lights, one on either side of your subject directed at your background. As mentioned above, mitigate spill by using modifiers and/or flagging light that may affect your subject and place your lights as far away from your background as reasonably possible. Avoid overlapping your lights because this will cause unwanted gradients. If precision is of the utmost importance (e.g. chroma key applications) use a light meter to take readings at various points across the frame, being sure to check corners.

What are your tips for getting clean backgrounds? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

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