Using a White Wall as a Photo Background

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A Guest Post by Jason Weddington

high-key-portrait.jpg
(1/200 sec @ f/8 ISO 100, 5d mkIII, ef 100mm f/2)

It’s possible to produce quality studio portraits without a purpose-built studio or expensive lighting equipment. I captured the above image using two hotshoe flashes, a medium-sized portable softbox, and a white wall as the background.

In this post I will share a simple two-light technique that you can use to create a high-key headshot in your own home, using only a plain white wall as the background. I made this portrait of my wife in a small room in our house.

high-key-portrait-bts.jpg

Gear List

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Lens: Canon EF 100mm f/2
Background Light: Canon 430EX II bare flash
Key Light: Canon 430EX II in 24″ Lastolite EzyBox softbox
Flash Trigger: Canon ST-E2

Lighting the Background

The key to pure white backgrounds is to light the background separately from the subject. For this portrait, I placed a single flash on a light stand, hidden behind the model, and pointed the flash directly at the wall. The flash was zoomed to it’s widest setting, and I also flipped down the built-in diffuser to further spread the light onto the wall.

high-key-setup-shot.jpg

The flash was powered manually at full power and configured as a slave. In a studio environment where I have total control of the lighting, I always set flash output manually, rather than letting the camera control the flash via TTL.

Lighting the Subject

To light the model, I used a second flash fired through a 24-inch softbox. The softbox was on a light stand positioned between the camera and the model, just outside the frame on the left. To get the softest possible lighting, I put the softbox as close to the model as possible, without it being visible in the frame.

The height of the softbox was such that the flash itself (in the centre of the softbox) was about 10 inches above the model’s eyes and I angled the softbox downward. The flash in the softbox was set manually to full power.

Post Processing

I processed this photo in Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6. Total post processing time was about 15 minutes. As this post is focused on lighting, not post pro, I won’t go into too much detail on the retouching. But in brief, here are the steps I followed:

1. Lightroom 4

  • spot removal to remove skin imperfections
  • increaser contrast slightly
  • reduced clarity to -10 to smooth skin tones
  • curve (s-curve) to increase contrast
  • subtle split tone to add blue tint to the hair

2. Photoshop CS6

  • retouched stray hairs
  • curves adjustments to increase contrast and colour
  • glamour glow affect using layer blending
  • subtle skin smoothing using gaussian blur and layer masking

Here’s a comparison between the straight from camera JPEG with only contrast and curves adjustments, and the finished image, retouched from a RAW file.

retouch-before-after.jpg

Understanding and Controlling Flash Exposure

With flash photography, your shutter speed controls the degree to which the ambient light will contribute to the exposure, and your aperture value controls the flash. This took me years to fully understand, but it’s actually quite simple:

Flash duration is really short. Think of it as a short, bright “flash” of light. It doesn’t matter how long the shutter is open, the light from the flash is gone by the time the shutter closes. So shutter speed only controls how much ambient light will enter the camera.

Because the flash duration is so short, the only thing that matters in terms of flash exposure is how large the aperture opens during that short burst of light.

The exposure settings for this shot are 1/200sec @ f/8 on ISO 100. A shutter speed of 1/200 kills the ambient light in the room so that only the flash is contributing to the exposure. For flash photography indoors, 1/200 at ISO 100 is usually fine for overpowering any ambient light in the room.

To get started with this kind of photography, set your flash manually at half power. With your camera also on manual, dial in some starting settings like 1/200sec @ f/8 on ISO 100, and take a test shot. If it’s overexposed, stop down to a smaller aperture like f/11. If your test shot is underexposed, open up to about f/5.6 and try again. If you’re way off the mark, increase or decrease the flash output. Throughout the experiment, keep your shutter speed constant, and only adjust your aperture or flash output. Adjust one thing at a time, so you can see the result of that change.

This is my first post on dPS, and I hope it’s been helpful for you. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Jason WeddingtonAmerican photographer currently based in Japan. I enjoy portrait, fine art, street, and travel photography. I’ve been shooting seriously since 2001 and I began doing commissioned work in 2010.  I am now in the midst of a career change to pursue photography full time. You can find tips and videos on my blog, and connect with me on Google+, Facebook, or Flickr.

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  • Great post buddy… Really valuable information… Thanks a lot and good luck with the new career 🙂

  • Good post… I’m just now getting some lighting equipment together to try my hand at some portrait work, and things like this to help understand how to best use flash in portrait situations are very useful. I normally do concert photography, so the idea of actually having control of the lighting in the shot is a novel concept to me 🙂

  • @Milinda – Thank you! I’m glad you liked my post. 🙂

    @Scott – Best of luck with the portrait work! Feel free to contact me if you have questions. The easiest way to contact me is through Google+.

  • Ben

    Awesome post. The way you explained and kept drilling home the role of shutter speed with regard to ambient light is going to help a lot of people, me included.

  • Nicole P

    Really detailed and informative post. I’m always looking for tips especially for shooting indoors (I tend to shoot in available light most of the time). I’m especially happy that you also included your post processing notes as well as the lighting and camera settings. Awesome work with both the photo and providing the tips, Jason!

  • Tim C

    Thanks for a really clear explanation of how to balance ambient and flash light. Looking forward to doing some experimentation of my own 🙂 I’ve already got the messy house, so I’m quarter of the way there already 😉

  • The point of lighting the background separately is a good one, but I for one am getting tired of these stark images that have no color whatsoever…it’s kind of overdone at this point. I’d like to see people who can wrangle beauty out of color – we live in a world of color, so let’s express ourselves that way! 🙂

    Jason Anderson
    http://www.canonblogger.com

  • Sure, white backgrounds can be powerful, but don’t go to that for lack of understanding how to deal with color. We live in a world of color, and lighting can be so much more powerful when done well with color

    Jason Anderson

  • Jay

    Thank you for sharing this lesson/tip.
    I have also tried aiming the “slave” flash directly at the model’s head from thaw back but with the flash unit hidden behind the model. This creates a white background while highlighting the hair.

  • @Jason – I agree with the comments on color. A white background is probably most often used for some kind of commercial application. It’s not something you do everyday, but I think it’s good to know how to do a white background in-camera, rather than doing a cut-out in Ps.

    @Jay – thanks for the comment, I’ve used that technique too.

  • Marisela

    I am planning to purchase my first flash during the holidays. The “controlling and understanding flash exposure” is in my Evernote notes now. Thank you!!!

  • George

    Hi Jason, this is so informative. When I recognized your work from 500px I’ve been following you on there as well. Some of your monochrome portraits are the best I’ve seen. Would LOVE to see some of those in a similar manner to the ones here – complete with lighting set ups and the tips you provide would be awesome!!

    Thank you,
    George :o)

  • Andy Collins

    Superb, well written and interesting tutorial cant wait for the next one…

  • Thank you for a great post! I’m just starting to explore lighting, and have been really struggling with figuring out what to adjust and when. Your advice is going to save me hours of trial and error! I hope to see more posts from you in the future!

  • @Marisela – You’re welcome, I’m glad you found this worthy of Evernote. 🙂 And thanks for the reminder, I haven’t used Evernote for a while, I should get back into the Evernote habit.

    @Ariana – Thanks for the comment!

  • I do like the idea of blowing out the background so that the subject is the only detail in the photo.
    I do think there is too drastic of a light falloff on the left side of the face and is too bright around the eye. maybe move the soft box over and dial it down a little too?

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Scottc

    Solid colors make great backgrounds, great article.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/7876341294/

  • This post was very valuable. I like how the information is broken down, Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • Sarah

    Great article! Please give us more! Will share this with my photo club!

  • Bill M

    Great shot and information. Any advice on stands for strobes and softbox? I have a couple of umbrellas but thinking a softbox may be better choice for these types of shots?
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Thanks everyone!

    @Brian – thanks for the comment about falloff. I had the softbox as close as possible to soften the light and avoid specularity. This softbox is only 24″ and I don’t like the specular highlights it creates when further away from the subject. So to to improve this shot I would probably add a reflector on the right to fill in the shadows, rather than move the sofbox back.

    @Bill – there are many choices, so it depends on the kinds of lights you’re using. I have cheap stands from Amazon because I’m using hotshoe flashes, which are not very heavy. I’m using something like this: http://www.amazon.com/CowboyStudio-Photography-Light-Stands-Cases/dp/B001WB02Z4

    If you have heavier studio strobes, I wouldn’t trust cheap stands like this, get something stronger, maybe from Manfrotto.

    An umbrella would also work for this shot. I prefer softboxes because the light is more directional and easier to control. Umbrellas through light everywhere, which is sometimes OK, but I prefer the increased control that comes with a softbox.

  • Bill M

    Thank you Jason fo prompt reply. I think the cowboy studios equipment will be sufficient for my needs. One more question if I may. Thinking of getting their single transmitter and two receiver wireless. Have never used them before. Does signal from transmitter to strobe require line of sight to trigger strobe? Looking at strobe on stand behind model. Sorry if this seems a poor question.

  • @Bill – I’ve never used those triggers, so I can’t make a specific comment. But in general, radio frequency triggers do not require line of sight. Even the ST-E2 IR trigger that I used for the shot above does not need line of sight indoors, because the IR signal bounces off of walls. Since the advertised range is 30m, my guess is that they would be fine for the application you’ve mentioned. But again, I’ve never used those triggers. I use PocketWizard FlexTT5 outdoors, and the Canon ST-E2 indoors.

    Most of the reviews look positive, so for that price I’d say give them a try.

  • Bill M

    Thanks very much Jason. I think I will order a set this weekend. Wasn’t sure how they worked. Appreciate your responses.

  • @Bill – best of luck with the new kit! My guess is you won’t get TTL flash control with those triggers, so you’ll need a flash with manual power controls. If your flash doesn’t have manual control it will either pop at full power or not at all. I’ve never used these so I’m speculating, but I imagine that would be the case. Maybe google for some reviews and read about other people’s experience to get some ideas of how to use them.

    I’d love to see your results, ping me on Flickr, G+, or via my site if you’d like to share your photos.

  • Bill M

    Will do Jason. Will order this weekend. BTW flash is 430 EX ll. I can do manual. Looks like another one has just been put on my wish list. Lol

  • Raduy

    Jason,

    thanks for this post! can you help me with a huuuuge question please…how do you syncronize your 430 II with your soft box flash?…I thought the 430 could only work as a slave, not main flash…is it possible to use the 430 as main and soft box flash as slaves?

    any articles or tips on syncronizing would be great help!!!

  • @raduy – The flash in the softbox is also a 430EX II, and both flashes are operating as slaves. I used a Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter to trigger both flashes. The ST-ET is not shown in the setup shot above because I put it on my other camera to trigger the flashes for the behind the scenes shot.

  • A good article and it is good to refresh one’s basic understanding of flash techniques. The role of the shutter and the aperture is very often misunderstood and you have simplified it very well.

  • Kerri

    Hello

    What if you wanted to do a full length shot, would two speedlites on other side (out of the frame) work? How close do they need to be to cover the full back wall?

    I have yet to get two lights to test this out.

    Thanks

  • @Kerri – great question! Two speedlites should be enough to light a white background for a full length shot. I think you’ll need to aim one high, and the other low, to cover enough area. I’d start with the lights as close as you can get them, without them being in the shot. Also, try starting with just the background lighting, and get that working before you add your subject and main light.

  • Paul Clarke

    Great feature, I really found it interesting and very useful as I am very interested in high and low key portraiture photography and I will save this article as both a guide and inspiration.
    Thanks. Paul.

  • Natarajan Ganesan

    I see some portraits where people sit on the ground but the background is seamless with the semblance of a floor. How does one about doing this?

  • Dave ollington

    Great post, the post process info, in that format, particularly useful! Keep the coming!!

  • Great article, thanks! I like those “ghetto studio” tips 🙂

  • Yomi Jones

    Your background is significantly over-exposed.

Some Older Comments

  • Natarajan Ganesan August 5, 2013 05:10 am

    I see some portraits where people sit on the ground but the background is seamless with the semblance of a floor. How does one about doing this?

  • Paul Clarke April 30, 2013 06:50 am

    Great feature, I really found it interesting and very useful as I am very interested in high and low key portraiture photography and I will save this article as both a guide and inspiration.
    Thanks. Paul.

  • Jason Weddington December 11, 2012 01:13 pm

    @Kerri - great question! Two speedlites should be enough to light a white background for a full length shot. I think you'll need to aim one high, and the other low, to cover enough area. I'd start with the lights as close as you can get them, without them being in the shot. Also, try starting with just the background lighting, and get that working before you add your subject and main light.

  • Kerri December 10, 2012 08:18 am

    Hello

    What if you wanted to do a full length shot, would two speedlites on other side (out of the frame) work? How close do they need to be to cover the full back wall?

    I have yet to get two lights to test this out.

    Thanks

  • David October 4, 2012 01:09 am

    A good article and it is good to refresh one's basic understanding of flash techniques. The role of the shutter and the aperture is very often misunderstood and you have simplified it very well.

  • Jason Weddington October 1, 2012 07:53 am

    @raduy - The flash in the softbox is also a 430EX II, and both flashes are operating as slaves. I used a Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter to trigger both flashes. The ST-ET is not shown in the setup shot above because I put it on my other camera to trigger the flashes for the behind the scenes shot.

  • Raduy September 30, 2012 02:48 pm

    Jason,

    thanks for this post! can you help me with a huuuuge question please...how do you syncronize your 430 II with your soft box flash?...I thought the 430 could only work as a slave, not main flash...is it possible to use the 430 as main and soft box flash as slaves?

    any articles or tips on syncronizing would be great help!!!

  • Bill M September 29, 2012 12:34 pm

    Will do Jason. Will order this weekend. BTW flash is 430 EX ll. I can do manual. Looks like another one has just been put on my wish list. Lol

  • Jason Weddington September 28, 2012 11:50 pm

    @Bill - best of luck with the new kit! My guess is you won't get TTL flash control with those triggers, so you'll need a flash with manual power controls. If your flash doesn't have manual control it will either pop at full power or not at all. I've never used these so I'm speculating, but I imagine that would be the case. Maybe google for some reviews and read about other people's experience to get some ideas of how to use them.

    I'd love to see your results, ping me on Flickr, G+, or via my site if you'd like to share your photos.

  • Bill M September 28, 2012 09:48 pm

    Thanks very much Jason. I think I will order a set this weekend. Wasn't sure how they worked. Appreciate your responses.

  • Jason Weddington September 28, 2012 04:19 pm

    @Bill - I've never used those triggers, so I can't make a specific comment. But in general, radio frequency triggers do not require line of sight. Even the ST-E2 IR trigger that I used for the shot above does not need line of sight indoors, because the IR signal bounces off of walls. Since the advertised range is 30m, my guess is that they would be fine for the application you've mentioned. But again, I've never used those triggers. I use PocketWizard FlexTT5 outdoors, and the Canon ST-E2 indoors.

    Most of the reviews look positive, so for that price I'd say give them a try.

  • Bill M September 28, 2012 02:01 pm

    Thank you Jason fo prompt reply. I think the cowboy studios equipment will be sufficient for my needs. One more question if I may. Thinking of getting their single transmitter and two receiver wireless. Have never used them before. Does signal from transmitter to strobe require line of sight to trigger strobe? Looking at strobe on stand behind model. Sorry if this seems a poor question.

  • Jason Weddington September 28, 2012 01:23 pm

    Thanks everyone!

    @Brian - thanks for the comment about falloff. I had the softbox as close as possible to soften the light and avoid specularity. This softbox is only 24" and I don't like the specular highlights it creates when further away from the subject. So to to improve this shot I would probably add a reflector on the right to fill in the shadows, rather than move the sofbox back.

    @Bill - there are many choices, so it depends on the kinds of lights you're using. I have cheap stands from Amazon because I'm using hotshoe flashes, which are not very heavy. I'm using something like this: http://www.amazon.com/CowboyStudio-Photography-Light-Stands-Cases/dp/B001WB02Z4

    If you have heavier studio strobes, I wouldn't trust cheap stands like this, get something stronger, maybe from Manfrotto.

    An umbrella would also work for this shot. I prefer softboxes because the light is more directional and easier to control. Umbrellas through light everywhere, which is sometimes OK, but I prefer the increased control that comes with a softbox.

  • Bill M September 28, 2012 11:52 am

    Great shot and information. Any advice on stands for strobes and softbox? I have a couple of umbrellas but thinking a softbox may be better choice for these types of shots?
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Sarah September 28, 2012 03:35 am

    Great article! Please give us more! Will share this with my photo club!

  • Joyce Shelton September 26, 2012 12:36 pm

    This post was very valuable. I like how the information is broken down, Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • Scottc September 25, 2012 09:01 am

    Solid colors make great backgrounds, great article.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/7876341294/

  • Brian Fuller September 25, 2012 02:43 am

    I do like the idea of blowing out the background so that the subject is the only detail in the photo.
    I do think there is too drastic of a light falloff on the left side of the face and is too bright around the eye. maybe move the soft box over and dial it down a little too?

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Jason Weddington September 24, 2012 11:01 pm

    @Marisela - You're welcome, I'm glad you found this worthy of Evernote. :-) And thanks for the reminder, I haven't used Evernote for a while, I should get back into the Evernote habit.

    @Ariana - Thanks for the comment!

  • Ariana Murphy September 24, 2012 09:18 pm

    Thank you for a great post! I'm just starting to explore lighting, and have been really struggling with figuring out what to adjust and when. Your advice is going to save me hours of trial and error! I hope to see more posts from you in the future!

  • Andy Collins September 24, 2012 09:07 pm

    Superb, well written and interesting tutorial cant wait for the next one...

  • George September 24, 2012 08:27 pm

    Hi Jason, this is so informative. When I recognized your work from 500px I've been following you on there as well. Some of your monochrome portraits are the best I've seen. Would LOVE to see some of those in a similar manner to the ones here - complete with lighting set ups and the tips you provide would be awesome!!

    Thank you,
    George :o)

  • Marisela September 24, 2012 03:34 pm

    I am planning to purchase my first flash during the holidays. The "controlling and understanding flash exposure" is in my Evernote notes now. Thank you!!!

  • Jason Weddington September 24, 2012 02:05 pm

    @Jason - I agree with the comments on color. A white background is probably most often used for some kind of commercial application. It's not something you do everyday, but I think it's good to know how to do a white background in-camera, rather than doing a cut-out in Ps.

    @Jay - thanks for the comment, I've used that technique too.

  • Jay September 24, 2012 01:22 pm

    Thank you for sharing this lesson/tip.
    I have also tried aiming the "slave" flash directly at the model's head from thaw back but with the flash unit hidden behind the model. This creates a white background while highlighting the hair.

  • Jason September 24, 2012 12:48 pm

    Sure, white backgrounds can be powerful, but don't go to that for lack of understanding how to deal with color. We live in a world of color, and lighting can be so much more powerful when done well with color

    Jason Anderson

  • Jason September 24, 2012 12:46 pm

    The point of lighting the background separately is a good one, but I for one am getting tired of these stark images that have no color whatsoever...it's kind of overdone at this point. I'd like to see people who can wrangle beauty out of color - we live in a world of color, so let's express ourselves that way! :-)

    Jason Anderson
    http://www.canonblogger.com

  • Tim C September 24, 2012 12:38 pm

    Thanks for a really clear explanation of how to balance ambient and flash light. Looking forward to doing some experimentation of my own :) I've already got the messy house, so I'm quarter of the way there already ;)

  • Nicole P September 24, 2012 09:43 am

    Really detailed and informative post. I'm always looking for tips especially for shooting indoors (I tend to shoot in available light most of the time). I'm especially happy that you also included your post processing notes as well as the lighting and camera settings. Awesome work with both the photo and providing the tips, Jason!

  • Ben September 24, 2012 08:09 am

    Awesome post. The way you explained and kept drilling home the role of shutter speed with regard to ambient light is going to help a lot of people, me included.

  • Jason Weddington September 24, 2012 07:45 am

    @Milinda - Thank you! I'm glad you liked my post. :)

    @Scott - Best of luck with the portrait work! Feel free to contact me if you have questions. The easiest way to contact me is through Google+.

  • Scott G September 24, 2012 04:22 am

    Good post... I'm just now getting some lighting equipment together to try my hand at some portrait work, and things like this to help understand how to best use flash in portrait situations are very useful. I normally do concert photography, so the idea of actually having control of the lighting in the shot is a novel concept to me :)

  • Milinda Ubeysinghe September 24, 2012 02:00 am

    Great post buddy... Really valuable information... Thanks a lot and good luck with the new career :)

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