Using a White Wall as a Photo Background

Using a White Wall as a Photo Background

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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