How I Shot & Edited - The White Infinity Setup - Digital Photography School

How I Shot & Edited – The White Infinity Setup

The Classic White Infinity Backdrop

In my last post about studio photography (the killer clamshell) I covered a simple two light setup for achieving a gorgeous soft beauty look.  This time I thought it might be fun to cover something a bit more general purpose and for this there cannot be anything better than the ever classic white infinity setup.

The All Can Do Lighting Setup

There is a reason why pretty much every major fashion or lifestyle magazine makes good use of a white backdrop and that reason is simplicity.  Not only is this lighting arrangement incredibly easy to achieve but it also delivers sharp, detailed portraits with a beautifully clean and uniform background and most importantly no visible seams or edges.  Aesthetics aside its also great for beginners to try as if done correctly provides a large and consistent zone in which to place your subject, allowing you to concentrate less on the position of your lights and more on placing and posing your model.

Families, pets, models, products the white infinity background is probably one of the most versatile setups going and to help you get started here is my approach to nailing this fantastic lighting arrangement:

Disclaimer

Ok, confession time.  The images and steps below are 100% genuine and therefore its going to be pretty obvious that I screwed up my exposure during this shoot.  Before you hit the big red ‘X’ at the top of your browser .. I can explain.  I basically had about 10 minutes to set everything up and 30 mins to take the shots before my studio rental was over.  Because I was in a rush I failed to spot that a large portion of the floor area was under exposed (by about a stop).  I promise I don’t do this all the time and if you don’t believe me check please feel free to check out the studio section of my portfolio site.  Hopefully by showing you my mistakes you will avoid them in the future.

Equipment

This lighting setup requires three lights and is best achieved using studio strobes as opposed to speed lights given the extra power needed to blow out the background.  As I have said before, hiring a studio is a cheap and very effective way to get access to this kind of equipment, making this shot all the easier to achieve.  If you do decide to do this at home however I would definitely recommend spending a little bit of money on a decent quality background paper, you can use a fabric backdrop but in my experience this will absorb much more light making the exposure more difficult than a non fabric setup.  Its also important that you have a background which is long enough to span both the back wall and floor of your shooting space.

For this setup you will need:

  • Two lights for the background, preferably with some form of diffuser to spread and soften the light.
  • A main light with as large a diffuser as you can possibly get, an octobox is ideal however any softbox or umbrella will also work.
  • If possible a light meter is also a great tool for this setup and will help speed up the setup although it isn’t essential.

The Lighting Setup

The important thing to achieve is a background that is both evenly exposed and completely blown out (i.e. solid white).  The ideal result is to have a background that is twice as bright as your subject, the trick here being the ratio of light as opposed to absolute values.

Typically I will set the exposure for my subject using an aperture of around f8.  Therefore if we want to achieve a background which is twice as bright we need to expose the background at an aperture which is one stop smaller than that used for the subject.

Just in case this doesn’t make complete sense, changing the aperture by one stop will either halve or double the available light.  Therefore if when we meter the background we use an aperture which is one stop smaller than the subject, when we open this back up again to take the final shots the background will now be twice as bright as the subject.

Here is how I go about getting this all set:

  1. Assuming a subject aperture of f8, set your camera to manual and dial in an aperture of f11 and a shutter speed of around 1/125 of a second with your lowest ISO.
  2. Aim the two background lights at the backdrop, positioning them to provide as even a spread of light as possible and either fire the stobes or take a test shot.  Take care to only expose the background, try to avoid any of the light spilling forward onto where the subject will be.
  3. If you have a light meter you can now use this to adjust the power of the background lights until you get an even exposure of f11 across the entire backing.  If you don’t have a light meter set the exposure by taking a test shot of the background, varying the power until the entire backdrop is solid white and evenly exposed.  If your camera has it you can use the highlight clipping warning combined with the histogram to double-check your results.   Remember to check the floor as well as the background, don’t make the same mistake as I did.
  4. Now its time to set the subject exposure, before doing so adjust your camera settings to f8 keeping everything else the same.
  5. Now turn off the background lights and place your subject in position.  Again if you have a light meter you can use this to confirm the right flash power to achieve an f8 exposure.  If you don’t have a light meter set your subject exposure by varying the flash power on your main light until you achieve an exposure that looks right.
  6. Now turn all your lights back on and you are all set.

Two background lights and a main subject light.

The Post Processing

Obviously you can post process your final images however you like but just in case you are looking for a few pointers here is a brief overview of my workflow and more importantly how I overcame my exposure malfunction.

Starting Point - Notice the horrible 'yellow' area of underexposed floor.

Step 1: White Balance & Crop - Basic adjustments to get the colour right and to straighten up the slight slant on the composition.

 

Step 2 - Minor exposure adjustment (slight exposure and fill light) to get the subject lighting right.

Step 3 - Contrast corrections using via a minor curves adjustment (slight 'S') and added detail via Clarity.

Step 4 - Now its time to fix the badly exposed floor. This was done using a gradient filter from the bottom up to increase the exposure on the area on the floor. Minor imperfections were cloned out using a spot healing brush.

Step 5 - All done, final image completed. Much better than the start as I am sure you will agree. All in all this took less than 2 minutes and would have been much less if I had got the exposure correct from the start.

Summary

The white infinity backdrop is a fantastically versatile and satisfying lighting setup and one which I would definitely recommend to anyone wanting to try something different to a single light arrangement.   Hopefully the tips here will help you to have a go at this classic lighting look, unfortunately though finding the super model is down to you!

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Russell Masters 'is a photographer, blogger and international man of meetings. Check out his work at eightfiftytwophotography.com and drop him a message via twitter @russmasters.

  • Scottc

    Not only did I learn the mistake I made with this white background, but I learned how to fix it in post as well!

    Great article. thanks.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8264738565/

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    Ah the infinite white background. My all time favorite article written about white backgrounds is by Zach Arias about 4 or 5 years ago. It’s a classic and very helpful for those who love the perfect look.

  • Mei Teng

    Excellent tutorial. I like the final look of the image.

  • http://Www.nextgenltd.com Deron

    I did the same in my house using the lastolite background and vinyl flooring.

    Can do it in 7ft x 7ft space.

    Here’s an example.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/9945386@N06/8182127945/

    Used white dropper in ps to fix underexposed white area, then reverted to history for subject.

  • JL

    While I appreciate the effort of writing the article, I’d have to say that with good lighting, you don’t need any tweaks at all for this look. That’s the whole point. If Lightroom/photoshop is required why bother and just shoot in your living room?
    You can’t polish a turd. Bit of an ambiguous tutorial with some good ideas, but mixed directions.

  • http://benchapmanphotos.blogspot.co.uk/ Ben Chapman

    To be fair the author did apologise for the mistake’s made.

    Thanks for the tutorial, I need to get into a studio and learn how to do it.

    I find myself confused however, how does an aperture of f11 allow the background to be twice as bright as f8, when using a constant 1/125?
    Logic tells me the background would be half as bright???

    Is it because the background aperture is smaller so requires twice as much light to expose as it would for f8?????

  • JL

    He means adjust the background lighting power to correctly expose the backdrop (white) at f11 so when you take your photograph of the subject at f8 the backdrop will be over exposed by 1 stop (i.e twice as bright).

  • http://www.charlesstaffordphotography.com Charles Stafford

    @Jai Catalano

    I second that. That is where I first learned it. Very detailed. This was a good reminder to break the setup out again and try some new things.

  • http://meverettphoto.com Matt E.

    @Ben Chapman: Essentially, this is because f/11 is smaller than f/8 and thus lets in half the amount of light; that means that it would require twice as much light to yield the same exposure at f/11 as it would f/8. The general idea is to over expose the background by 1 or 1.5 stops compared to the subject, in other words you need more light.

    Let me modify the author’s example a bit for clarity:

    Step 1: Set your camera to ISO 100, f/8. and 1/125 (this sets up a good foundation)
    Step 2: Light your subject so it is properly exposed at ISO 100, f/8. and 1/125 (lets assume 1/4 power on a hotshoe flash, for easy math)
    Step 3: Light the background so it is at least 1 stop overexposed (but not much more) at ISO 100, f/8. and 1/125 (this would be at least 1/2 power on the hotshoe flash)

  • http://www.jimwoolseyphotography.com Jim Woolsey

    very good tutorial. I’ve tried different ways to blow out my white background but this method seems to make the most sense. What is the third light used for and where is it placed?

  • http://www.milkywayphotography.com Tim Mielke

    Good article. Have you experienced any blooming on the edges of the subject when you over expose the background much more than 1 stop brighter than the subjects? Sometime I have to be careful that I don’t clip detail in the subject using my Canon 40D with the smaller 1.6x crop factor sensor.

  • http://www.willdonnelly.com Will Donnelly

    Hey Russell, Good tutorial but seems like everybody is a bit confused about what a 1 fstop difference is double the light intensity. I have a much different question….. from the diagram you lit the background with no fall off on the model, so naturally the floor isnt white like the background. when I do this in the studio, I have a grey floor with a shadow from the model up to the point where the background starts..Like you, I would post production this because the light on the model is usually f8 around the face and clothes but fall off at the floor. I dont want to show clients all the photos with a grey floor, but its lots of work and very time consuming… your gradient correction is good, but isnt there a way that its a seamless in the camera without the post production and still not overlighting the model? Ive tried many solutions, but havent gotten the result that satisfys me without a compromise. thanks, Will

  • http://www.eightfiftyphotography.com Russell

    Hey everyone, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post.

    As jl says you ideally would set this up properly and would therefore have much less work to do in post, the purpose however of me writing this was to share my bad experiences so others can hopefully avoid doing the same. This wasn’t my first time with this setup so if you are interested take a look at my portfolio for some examples of other shots which didn’t need as much help.

    I think it might be worth adding a few extra notes on how the exposure works. The important thing to remember is that we are dealing with two fixed exposures, the background and then the subject. In both cases we have fixed the power of the studio lights and therefore as we alter the camera settings we alter the exposure of the background and foreground however as the power of light is fixed they remain in proportion.

    A key fact to remember is that when we change an exposure by a stop we either double or half the light in the image. In this case we set the background lights to be correctly exposed at an aperture of f11. If we just concentrate on the background exposure (forget the subject for now), leave the shutter speed and ISO alone and change the aperture by one stop, what would we expect to happen?

    As the background lights are fixed, if we open up the aperture by one stop (to f8) the effect would be to double the amount of light on the background. Similarly if we were to close the aperture by a stop (to f16) the opposite would happen making the background half as bright. So as we have set the background exposure at f11, knowing that we want to expose the subject at f8, what we end up with is well lit subject with a background twice as bright as the subject.

    On the points raised by Will, the problem you mention is exactly the issue I fell foul of here. The important thing to do is position your background lights such that the light being produced covers the entire area in which you plan to shoot. In the example above my background lights were not angled correctly resulting in a nasty area of under exposure on the floor. The next important thing to do is take care when positioning your subject light, ideally this will be a nice large light source which you can use to expose the full length of the subject. Looking back my main light was quite flat and it would have probably been better if I had positioned this higher up and angled downwards to ensure that both the subject and more of the floor were exposed.

    I hope these comments help. If you do have a go at this technique, it would be great to see some of your shots so please post any links you have here.

  • Jacques

    JL just for a little more fun of a discussion, you actually can polish a turd, it was proved on Mythbusters :)

  • Michael Owens

    Nice Russel.

    Can I ask, would this work with a white muslin background?

Some older comments

  • Russell

    January 27, 2013 08:41 pm

    Hey everyone, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post.

    As jl says you ideally would set this up properly and would therefore have much less work to do in post, the purpose however of me writing this was to share my bad experiences so others can hopefully avoid doing the same. This wasn't my first time with this setup so if you are interested take a look at my portfolio for some examples of other shots which didn't need as much help.

    I think it might be worth adding a few extra notes on how the exposure works. The important thing to remember is that we are dealing with two fixed exposures, the background and then the subject. In both cases we have fixed the power of the studio lights and therefore as we alter the camera settings we alter the exposure of the background and foreground however as the power of light is fixed they remain in proportion.

    A key fact to remember is that when we change an exposure by a stop we either double or half the light in the image. In this case we set the background lights to be correctly exposed at an aperture of f11. If we just concentrate on the background exposure (forget the subject for now), leave the shutter speed and ISO alone and change the aperture by one stop, what would we expect to happen?

    As the background lights are fixed, if we open up the aperture by one stop (to f8) the effect would be to double the amount of light on the background. Similarly if we were to close the aperture by a stop (to f16) the opposite would happen making the background half as bright. So as we have set the background exposure at f11, knowing that we want to expose the subject at f8, what we end up with is well lit subject with a background twice as bright as the subject.

    On the points raised by Will, the problem you mention is exactly the issue I fell foul of here. The important thing to do is position your background lights such that the light being produced covers the entire area in which you plan to shoot. In the example above my background lights were not angled correctly resulting in a nasty area of under exposure on the floor. The next important thing to do is take care when positioning your subject light, ideally this will be a nice large light source which you can use to expose the full length of the subject. Looking back my main light was quite flat and it would have probably been better if I had positioned this higher up and angled downwards to ensure that both the subject and more of the floor were exposed.

    I hope these comments help. If you do have a go at this technique, it would be great to see some of your shots so please post any links you have here.

  • Will Donnelly

    January 18, 2013 05:43 am

    Hey Russell, Good tutorial but seems like everybody is a bit confused about what a 1 fstop difference is double the light intensity. I have a much different question..... from the diagram you lit the background with no fall off on the model, so naturally the floor isnt white like the background. when I do this in the studio, I have a grey floor with a shadow from the model up to the point where the background starts..Like you, I would post production this because the light on the model is usually f8 around the face and clothes but fall off at the floor. I dont want to show clients all the photos with a grey floor, but its lots of work and very time consuming... your gradient correction is good, but isnt there a way that its a seamless in the camera without the post production and still not overlighting the model? Ive tried many solutions, but havent gotten the result that satisfys me without a compromise. thanks, Will

  • Tim Mielke

    January 9, 2013 03:57 am

    Good article. Have you experienced any blooming on the edges of the subject when you over expose the background much more than 1 stop brighter than the subjects? Sometime I have to be careful that I don't clip detail in the subject using my Canon 40D with the smaller 1.6x crop factor sensor.

  • Jim Woolsey

    January 8, 2013 01:44 pm

    very good tutorial. I've tried different ways to blow out my white background but this method seems to make the most sense. What is the third light used for and where is it placed?

  • Matt E.

    January 6, 2013 07:36 pm

    @Ben Chapman: Essentially, this is because f/11 is smaller than f/8 and thus lets in half the amount of light; that means that it would require twice as much light to yield the same exposure at f/11 as it would f/8. The general idea is to over expose the background by 1 or 1.5 stops compared to the subject, in other words you need more light.

    Let me modify the author's example a bit for clarity:

    Step 1: Set your camera to ISO 100, f/8. and 1/125 (this sets up a good foundation)
    Step 2: Light your subject so it is properly exposed at ISO 100, f/8. and 1/125 (lets assume 1/4 power on a hotshoe flash, for easy math)
    Step 3: Light the background so it is at least 1 stop overexposed (but not much more) at ISO 100, f/8. and 1/125 (this would be at least 1/2 power on the hotshoe flash)

  • Charles Stafford

    January 6, 2013 04:29 am

    @Jai Catalano

    I second that. That is where I first learned it. Very detailed. This was a good reminder to break the setup out again and try some new things.

  • JL

    January 4, 2013 12:01 pm

    He means adjust the background lighting power to correctly expose the backdrop (white) at f11 so when you take your photograph of the subject at f8 the backdrop will be over exposed by 1 stop (i.e twice as bright).

  • Ben Chapman

    January 4, 2013 09:20 am

    To be fair the author did apologise for the mistake's made.

    Thanks for the tutorial, I need to get into a studio and learn how to do it.

    I find myself confused however, how does an aperture of f11 allow the background to be twice as bright as f8, when using a constant 1/125?
    Logic tells me the background would be half as bright???

    Is it because the background aperture is smaller so requires twice as much light to expose as it would for f8?????

  • JL

    January 3, 2013 12:03 pm

    While I appreciate the effort of writing the article, I'd have to say that with good lighting, you don't need any tweaks at all for this look. That's the whole point. If Lightroom/photoshop is required why bother and just shoot in your living room?
    You can't polish a turd. Bit of an ambiguous tutorial with some good ideas, but mixed directions.

  • Deron

    January 3, 2013 11:40 am

    I did the same in my house using the lastolite background and vinyl flooring.

    Can do it in 7ft x 7ft space.

    Here's an example.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/9945386@N06/8182127945/

    Used white dropper in ps to fix underexposed white area, then reverted to history for subject.

  • Mei Teng

    January 3, 2013 11:32 am

    Excellent tutorial. I like the final look of the image.

  • Jai Catalano

    January 3, 2013 10:08 am

    Ah the infinite white background. My all time favorite article written about white backgrounds is by Zach Arias about 4 or 5 years ago. It's a classic and very helpful for those who love the perfect look.

  • Scottc

    January 3, 2013 09:47 am

    Not only did I learn the mistake I made with this white background, but I learned how to fix it in post as well!

    Great article. thanks.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8264738565/

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