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So, you’ve picked up some strobes to help light your subjects and are in the process of setting up your studio. This is a very exciting time: so much to photograph, total control of the lighting, what an opportunity…. but how to choose the right photography backdrop? How you shoot and what you shoot will affect your decision, as will your budget.
If you haven’t figured it out already – you soon will – most photographers realize that one of the essential features of a good photograph is the thing that nobody notices: the background. When it works, people “oohh” and “aahh”. However, if it doesn’t work, people can’t figure out why they don’t like your image. One of the secrets of any successful photographer is paying attention to what’s behind your subject. This applies to any photograph, not just those taken in the studio. You might want to consider purchasing commercial backdrops that can significantly improve the quality of your shots.
Assuming you already know what’s involved in lighting a studio (if not check this out), the next question is what to use as a backdrop. There are multiple types and sizes with pros and cons for each. Backdrop mounting and portability are also necessary.
It is one thing to have a backdrop for use in your studio, but what if you are asked to set up somewhere else? How do you make your backdrop portable? What goes best with the subject? If you are shooting a white subject, you probably don’t want a white backdrop because the white may disappear into the background (same with black on black). The color doesn’t need to be complementary (although it helps if it is) but should provide contrast. Lighting tricks can alleviate some of this, but sometimes it’s just easier to use a contrasting backdrop.
There are multiple types of backdrops but they all function similarly. They all tend to be relatively thin and only intended as backgrounds (not designed for subjects to interact with). Then can be constructed of seamless paper, muslin, hand-painted canvas or vinyl. The most expensive, least flexible, and the fanciest backdrop is the cyclorama or cyc studio.
Seamless paper is a versatile and inexpensive backdrop and is a staple for many studios. They are available in many colors, with the most common being black or white. You can produce gray from white backdrops by altering your lighting setup, so a dedicated gray backdrop isn’t necessary. You can also modify white backgrounds with gelled lighting to created colored backgrounds.
There are pros of using seamless paper: the look is clean, you can modify the background colors with lighting, and the images can be cut out for background replacement. The cons of using seamless paper are: the rolls can be awkward to transport if a wide size (even just from the store to the studio), the paper can be easily damaged, and the backgrounds have no texture. In addition, if you have colored paper, the background colors can seep into the edges of your subject.
Seamless paper provides flooring as well as the backdrop without a visible interface between the floor and the background. This makes it ideal for product photography as well as studio shots. The lack of a seam makes the image appear to float with an infinite background.
Muslin backdrops are constructed from a cotton fabric. They come in various weights and sizes and can be dyed in a single color, have color splotches, or be hand painted. Because muslin backdrops have been in use for a long time, some photographers don’t pay much attention to them. They are, however, very portable and generally look good. Another great feature is that you can easily wash them if soiled. However, you may need to clean larger sizes in a commercial machine. Muslin backdrops can look modern or retro, depending upon the style of lighting. They are a great addition to every photographer’s arsenal of backdrops.
Similar to paper, you can use longer muslin as flooring for the subject. Solid colors function much like seamless paper, but you need to be cautious about folds in the muslin as they can be distracting from the subject. Muslin backdrops produce many of the same effects as a seamless paper but are much easier to transport.
There are a few downsides to muslin backdrops. Depending upon how you light them, you may see folds in the fabric behind your subject. As your subject moves, the backdrop may also move, disrupting your background. People may even trip over the material as they walk across the muslin. If you are not careful, solid colored muslins will wrinkle, detracting from the appearance of the background. Because muslins were popular for so many years, certain styles appear particularly old or dated. Photographers need to take care in choosing the style of the muslin backdrops.
If you have ever flipped through a copy of Vanity Fair or seen images from Annie Leibovitz, you know the look of a hand-painted canvas backdrop. They look amazing. These studio backdrops are hand painted onto large sheets of canvas. The paint is done in multiple layers to give the perception of depth and texture. The ones used in many of the fashion or movie-star photoshoots tend to be specialty canvases that are custom made. The effort to paint the backdrops, and the large space required to create them, tends to make these expensive.
Hand-painted canvas backdrops provide a vibrant appearance. A lighting change does not generate this richness, but purely because of the reflective surfaces on the backdrop. The paint adds texture, and the various layers of the paint add depth and tonality you cannot achieve with seamless paper. Because they are hand-painted, each canvas tends to be unique.
The downsides of hand-painted canvas backdrops are cost and care in handling. You don’t want people stepping on your canvas backdrops because they are easily damaged and difficult to clean. That said, the visual effect of a hand-painted canvas backdrop can be stunning.
Vinyl backdrops consist of large images printed on pliable vinyl. Many images are suitable for a vinyl backdrop, but this form is limited to the vertical surface in the background. Flooring is separate. You can purchase separate vinyl sheets for flooring to simulate flooring (such as hardwood floors).
Vinyl backdrops can feature unusual or creative backgrounds. They are great for children, parties or events and are washable, so they work for different types of cake smash, food fight or spray images (be careful about the rest of your studio). Also, they are quite pliable so they can be moved about without much difficulty. Finally, they can feature images that appear three dimensional (like a bookcase).
On the other hand, vinyl backdrops are a little reflective, so you need to be cautious about how your lights are set up. You also need to be aware that the backgrounds are two dimensional even though they can appear to be three dimensional.
A cyclorama or cyc studio is a fixed (built in place) backdrop consisting of two intersecting wall sections that have been curved seamlessly into one another and the floor so that there are no visible corners. By curving the corners, the background flows from wall to wall to floor. A cyclorama is a practical and durable backdrop. However, it is also the least flexible (it won’t move) and is only one color (usually white). It makes the subject appear to be floating with an infinite background and is a great way to create cut outs to modify your background.
This type of backdrop takes a lot of space, time and effort, but makes for great photographs.
Seamless paper doesn’t usually have any texture. It comes in large rolls of varying widths, with 53 inches and 107 inches being the two most common sizes. Seamless paper also provides the flooring in front of the background without a corner edge. Because it is paper, you need to be aware of dirty or wet footwear because they leave marks and can damage the paper. When the paper is too damaged, you roll out more paper and discard the dirty or damaged section. The rolls generally have lots of paper, somewhere in the range of 9-12 yards (27-36 feet). White seamless paper is often ideal for a studio set up when you want to cut out the background and replace it with something else.
Muslin backdrops come in different styles: standard, washed, crumpled and hand-painted. Standard sizes are 10 feet wide by 12 or 24 feet long. They can be challenging to manage but cover a wide area. Ideally, they come sewn with a pocket at the top that allows you to run it on a rod. Folds in the backdrop can evoke an older photographic style, so most contemporary photographers try to flatten out the muslin. Wrinkle elimination sometimes requires a steamer.
Because canvas is a much heavier material, these backdrops typically come on rolls. If you don’t manage them as rolls, they can be difficult to handle. Standard sizes are about 6 feet wide by 8 feet tall. Most suppliers have a range of sizes. Canvas tends to hang in stretched out to avoid any folds. If you are doing full-length photographs, you will need to consider what you are using for the floor.
Vinyl backdrops vary in size. Similar to canvas, you need to stretch them to eliminate folds. Some vinyl backdrops come with printed flooring (such as hardwood floors) and can be used together, provided you deal with the interface. Stretching the vinyl on the mounting allows for the image to present well. When shooting with vinyl, you need to ensure that the lighting does not reflect into the camera lens. If you’ve used a backdrop with a three-dimensional image, a reflection will make it clear that the background is not real.
There are a few options for mounting backdrops. The determining factor tends to be the size and type of backdrop you are using, as well as the frequency with which you plan on changing them. In general, you want some ability to change and mix up the backgrounds.
The basic options for mounting are fixed bars or portable stands. If you have a permanent studio and never plan on taking any of your backgrounds on the road, fixed bars or rollers are ideal. You mount them on the ceiling or wall so that they are suitably high, and allow the paper or fabric to roll off. Mounting on the ceiling means the backdrop will be high enough for your tallest subjects. Framing can be done merely with conduit and small size piping. There are also large electrically controlled rollers available. The costs can range from very cheap to very expensive.
Stands, allow for flexibility of the configuration. Some stands are intended for backdrops and often come as a set with clamps included. With portable backdrops, clamps play an integral role in making the background smooth and even. It is particularly the case with muslin or canvas backdrops, but seamless paper also benefits from strategic use of clamps to ensure that it does not keep unspooling as you hang the rolls.
There are also pop-up stands that you can use for canvas or vinyl backgrounds. You simply clamp the background to the edges of a springy stand. There are multiple systems for this, and many come with their own backgrounds as a complete set.
Regardless of your backdrop choice, keep the subject at least 3 feet away from it to avoid casting shadows onto the backdrop. This all ties to the strategic use of lighting setups. Your goal is to have the backdrop disappear behind the subject, making it the center of attention.
Some backdrops, particularly white seamless paper, may need to be lit separately. If you don’t light the backdrop you may have uneven colors behind the subject that detract from the image or prevent the easy masking of the backdrop.
In general, keeping backdrops clean can be a challenge. Some are easier to clean than others. However, hand-painted canvas and paper backdrops can’t be cleaned without damaging the surfaces, while muslin and vinyl backdrops are easier to clean. You may need to wash large muslins commercially. It is also important that any washing gets done in such a way that the fabrics don’t become altered or damaged.
Choosing the right studio backdrop can affect the mood and overall feel of your images. My personal favorite is hand-painted canvas, but I have used them all (except a cyclorama) effectively. The use of backdrops work hand in glove with your chosen lighting setup, and you should consider both together. If used well, you can make your images pop by having the backdrops pull focus onto your subjects.