3 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Shooting on a White Background

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Because the ubiquitous white background portrait is so commonplace, many people think it’s easy to achieve. Simply put your subject in front of the camera against a white background, preferably with a flash or strobe, and take the picture.

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Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that. Doing just that would result in a photo with either a gray, dull, muddy toned background. The best possible result would be an off-white background after you have done some edits. That’s not the only issue though, you’d be dismayed to see unwanted shadows everywhere too.

I have replicated the setup with my little model Sven – Kristoff’s beloved reindeer in the movie Frozen. It is easier doing this on small scale subject as the lights are oversized in comparison. With people, to do this to scale, you need to have massive size octoboxes and flags. But this tutorial will show you the process clearly.

Here are 3 rookie mistakes to avoid when trying to achieve a 100% pure white background:

Mistake #1 The background is not lit properly

The background must be lit with approximately two stops more light, than the amount of falling on the subject. For example, if you want to photograph your subject at f/8, set your background lights to two stops brighter, so the meter would read f/16 on the background.

Note: You need to meter both background lights separately, so that when metering for the main light (on the subject) you would turn the background lights off, and vice versa. When both the background and main lights are on, your meter should still give you f/8 on the subject, because you are metering the light that falls on your subject and not on the background.

The photo below (right) shows what it looks like when you don’t light the background at all. You get a tone and color other than the intended white. In the photo on the left the background was lit, but there was no main light illuminating the subject; thus the resulting image is almost a silhouette of the subject.

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My camera settings for all the shots in this setup were: ISO 250, 1/160th of a second, shot at f/8 for Sven, (the background read f/16). The speedlights were set to 1/16th power. I rarely use them at full power because the batteries run out very quickly that way. If you are using the SB900 Nikon, firing at 1/1 power, not only does it drain the batteries very quickly, but also makes the flash overheat. Nikon has solved this problem with the SB910. These are some reasons why I did not shoot this at ISO 100. The camera used was a Nikon D750, which handles noise superbly, so that ISO is not an issue. Two SB910s and one SB900 were used for this setup.

The photo below shows a pull back of the setup with only the left background light firing.

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You will notice in the two images below that only the right background light fired on the left photo, and only the left background light fired on the right photo. This lighting is acceptable of course if that were your intention. The main light was positioned at a 45 degree angle on camera right. I wanted to bounce my flash onto the white rogue bender to modify it.

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You may also notice that on the left photo (above) there is a pleasing shadow of Sven behind him on the background – because the left background light didn’t fire. Where the background light did fire on the left, this shadow was eliminated (right photo above).

Below is the setup with all three lights firing correctly.

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Now that you have your background and main lights set up, you need to make sure these lights only hit the intended subject. This leads us to the next rookie mistake… separation.

Mistake #2 Not enough subject background separation

Because the background lights are so much brighter, you need to separate them from the main subject. There are two key ways of doing this:

  1. Flagging
  2. Distance

Flagging

You can use anything block to flag your lights; the black side of a reflector, black cardboard sheets, black foam core. Black does not let light in, instead it absorbs light rather than bounces it. It also blocks light from seeping through to places where you do not want it. If you don’t flag (block) your background lights, your subject will get a halo effect and look very backlit.

Distance

Once you have flagged your lights, you need to distance your subject far enough away the background (and background light) so that any spills won’t touch your subject. This depends on your personal preference and intention of course – you may want some spill on your subject for a certain look or effect, or you may not.

If you do want some spill on your subject, make sure to run a few tests with various lenses, as chromatic aberration tends to occur around the edges due to the abundance of light. Some lenses are prone to chromatic aberration irrespective of aperture, while others can handle it very well even at wide apertures, where it is most commonly observed. Also, be careful with the amount of spill you allow so as not to chop off parts of your subject from the spill overexposure.

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The photos above show a properly lit Sven. The two background lights firing at f/16 and the main light firing at f/8. There are no unwanted shadows on the background, as was my intention. However, I wanted to have a reflection and shadow in the foreground. This leads nicely to the third rookie mistake to avoid…a floating subject.

Mistake #3 The subject is floating

If you do not include some floor shadows, your subjects will look like they are floating on white air, or cut out and pasted on a white sheet of paper.

The best tip for avoiding floating subjects is to use a reflective surface like translucent white plexiglass, or white tile sheet, as a base for your subject to stand on. You can adjust the opacity of this reflection in Photoshop during post-processing, but having the reflection shows that your subject is planted firmly on solid ground.

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The left image shows Sven floating, and on the right you see the reflection showing Sven standing on solid ground. The latter looks more pleasing and natural, and not like a cut-and-paste job.

Bonus Mistake #4 Overexposed background

Be careful not to add too much light to the background. If you go past pure white and really overexpose it, the white will start almost glowing around the subject just like if you had sun flare outdoors. It lowers contrast and your subject looks like that have a bit of a halo, as you can see in the images below.

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For more tips on a white or high key background see: 4 Tips for a Perfect White Background in High Key Photography

Conclusion

I hope this little tutorial has shed some light on basic techniques for shooting a white background, where you want the background to be 100% white, and that it has dispelled any mystery over how to achieve this look. If you have other more advanced techniques, do share them here!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lily Sawyer

is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on “mummy” dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

  • Thank you for the great tips. It showed me I that I really need to invest in brighter lights asap. Using the plexiglass is a nice touch.

    Would have been nice to see an example of flagging. In the setup photos it looked like you didn’t flag any of your lights…? or did I miss something.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Hello. Thanks for your comments and glad you found the article helpful. Photos 3 and 5 show flagging – those 2 black things blocking the lights from the backdrop….

  • betty

    doesn’t going from f8 to f16 actually reduce the amount of light on the background? Doubling the light would be 5.6????

  • Lily Sawyer

    Hi Betty thanks for your comment. Your background lights need to be so bright that you need to stop down to f16 on your meter reading. The lower the f number the less light you are letting into your lens. Remember your background light is separate from your subject light hence you need to meter them separately too. It needs to be much brighter but only needs to illuminate the background for the 100% white look. It can’t touch the subject or you will get unwanted backlight and halos.

  • Howard Raver

    I had the same question. How about a clear example of flagging, showing placement etc. In the photo with the flagging, it isn’t obvious to those of us who have never used it, or perhaps this is the first we may have heard of it.

  • Hazel Frederick’s Ghost

    Wouldn’t call #4 a mistake, more of a choice that needs to be considered judiciously. I guess that’s maybe why it’s bonus.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Yes – depends on your intention, definitely.

  • Lily Sawyer

    The 2 black things facing the background are used as flags, they are bendable boards . Behind them are the flash guns which you don’t see because they are blocked by those boards. Translated to people, you can use V flats or black cardboards or poly boards painted in black to put in front of your background lights so that any light bounced back from the background (spill) is blocked by those boards.

  • Hazel Frederick’s Ghost

    I totally get it though. All too often I have no control over a window in the background of a shot that my friends/family want and I spend fifteen minutes playing with masks and highlights. Good to warn people to be conscious of backlight. Thanks for the tip.

  • Natalie Finney

    Hi Lily, thanks for the great article there is heaps of takeaways for me in this! My question is … are the flags you used something you bought as is or did you DIY them? Is it possible to find out what brand these are? I am interested in purchasing some flags for my diy backlights (which are LED worklights from bunnings) but are conscious that most flags probably wouldn’t fit these properly

  • Peter

    Hi Natalie
    For DIY flags you can just use cardboard painted matt/flat black or foamcore is still fairly cheap, & again paint it matt/flat black. If you paint the Foamcore one side black & the other side leave white you have a flag & a reflector. You must be in Australia (Bunnings) so Riot Art has Foamcore of various sizes ( just picked up an A3 in white tonight). I think you can get Foamcore from FrameCo, Picture Framing supplies. You cut it to size for your LED Worklights. I use the cheap $2 shop black plastic clamps or Bulldog clips to position.
    Cheers
    Peter

  • Betty if you take a meter reading and it tells you to expose your subject at f/8 and your background at f/16 it is telling you that the background is brighter – therefore you need to use a smaller aperture (f/16) than you do for the subject. The meter tells you how to make medium grey not white. So in order to get white it must be brighter than the subject.

    If you took a reading on the subject at f/8 and the background said f/5.6 the meter is telling you that the background is darker and needs you to up up your aperture more to make medium gray. If you shoot with that setting you will get something that is one stop DARKER than medium grey (aa you will be shooting at f/8 for the subject) and background will be underexposed.

    Hope that helps.

  • betty

    Thanks so much Darlene. My bad in misunderstanding the original explanation in the article! I reread it and am in complete agreement! Thanks for the great tips! I really love this site!

  • No problem, it can be confusing we get it.

  • Steve Cranson

    I’m trying to take pictures of jewellery with a white background. Your technic is fine for free standing subject but how do you get the same results when the subject, ie jewellery, cannot stand on its own and has to be resting on the background material/backdrop?

  • Lily Sawyer

    How about using a light tent so the object is fully enveloped in light and shadows are minimised?

  • Steve Cranson

    Wouldn’t that washout the colours of the product and would the background be pure white or off white or even light grey

  • Steve Cranson

    I used a light tent and ended up with a bluish tinted backgroud

  • Lily Sawyer

    Would it help to change the white balance in post?

  • Lily Sawyer

    I would imagine the background to be pure white as it will be very bright (having 2 flashes on either side outside the tent at the minimum) and if you shoot with a small aperture I shouldn’t think a washed out subject would be a worry. Having said that I haven’t used a light tent but it is commonly used for product photography. Just make sure your apertures are small to get everything in focus and that your lights are bright enough to get a pure white background.

  • Steve Cranson

    I think I tried that but am only able to change to preset white balances. I did try to change exposure, brightness, shadows, highlights but could get the background pure white

    Should a frontal flash do the trick?

  • Steve Cranson

    R u suggesting using additional lights outside the tent focused on the background from the sides?

  • Lily Sawyer

    If I were shooting it, I would put 2 flashes outside on either side of the tent angled towards the background and add a 3rd light from the outside front pointing slightly upwards at an angle and see how that goes. I would then adjust accordingly depending on what the image looks like. I would also experiment and see if I pushed the front flash power up to almost as bright as the background to counteract any back-lighting spill (it will be spilled everywhere) and also stop down my aperture to perhaps f11. If that doesn’t work, I would put black flags on the inside to control the spill. Black flags can just be pieces of black paper or board.

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