White Seamless - Studio How-To

White Seamless – Studio How-To



In a recent post, I referred to studio photography with a white background and bright lights as being ‘high-key’and got quite a bit of flack about it. 

While calling this style ‘high-key’ may be a deviation from the original definition, it’s a heck of a lot easier than always calling it ‘photography with a white background and bright lights’. Recently, I read a blog from a photographer who calls it ‘white seamless’ due to the large roll of white seamless paper (or in my case, vinyl) which you use as the background. So here I am, calling it ‘white seamless’.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and many ways to produce the white seamless look. I don’t know much about those other methods and I learned my own by trial and error.


I set up the studio thus (my full kit list is in my last post):

  • Background – white roll of seamless vinyl on a heavy duty stand
  • There are two lights pointing at the background – 400 wt on half power with a high performance reflector attached. Lights are aimed around 45* towards the background. Nearly head-on at the background, not at an angle facing each other. The light from these can easily spill and wrap around your subjects which is really obnoxious. If I had a permanent location and didn’t have to set up every day, I would also be using gobos like this bi-fold door idea from Zack Arias to be sure that the background is lighted entirely separately from the subject.
  • Camera right, 750 wt light somewhere near full power with a large soft box. Set up mid-height (stand not fully extended) and pointing down. Great long shadows add the effect that, although the surroundings are pure white, the subjects are still in a real environment, not just cut and pasted onto a white sheet of paper.
  • Camera left and behind a bit is another 750 wt light with large bounce umbrella on a slightly lower power than camera right. This aids in the lovely shadows which don’t completely ‘blow out’ the subjects. I’ve found that shooting between the lights (camera right is just on the edge of the white seamless and camera left is behind me) canceled out the light spill I was experiencing before I made the changes.
  • I use radio trigers to trigger the flashes wirelessly
  • Because I shoot children mostly, my camera has an 18-200mm lens so I can be more flexible with their movement and not miss a shot.
  • Camera is tethered to a macbook on a 5m cable and shot directly into the hard drive on the computer and also stored on the large memory card in the camera for added protection.

I don’t use light meters I’ve just experimented a lot and when I get a set of images I love, I put a photo in my notebook and draw a diagram of how it was lit and all the settings I used.

Camera Settings

  • I whack the main lights  up pretty near full power so I can use a high aperture around f22 (aperture controls flash-light, shutter speed for ambient light). So if the photos aren’t bright enough, adjust the aperture accordingly and turn up the lights. This ensures that your photos will be sharp sharp sharp and in the case of children, if there is one closer to you than the other, the one in the background won’t be blurred.
  • Shutter speed is at the sync speed – 1/200 a fast shutter speed and powerful lights can produce some amazing stop-action shots
  • ISO – I keep the ISO low at 100 to avoid noise.
  • So basically as you can see, I use every optimal camera setting – low ISO, fast shutter, high aperture – and then I adjust the lights until the photos are as they should be.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Rhonda September 5, 2011 08:53 am

    Have limited space for the studio and want to achieve a blown out white background. What lights would you suggest to blow out the background? I would like to find a light that can be attached to the ceiling and shine down to the background. Any suggestions?

  • Stephen February 14, 2010 08:38 am

    I'm vastly late on reading this and commenting, but I find this tutorial very helpful. With your information and everyone else's comments, I learned quite a bit. F22 is great for moving subjects, that's something to certainly consider. F8 or somewhere around there, is the sweat spot for focus without much diffraction.

    One thing I noted though, was that you wished you had those doors as a means to stop light spill. Wouldn't this be the job of a 'barn door'? In a traveling studio, that was actually what we used, part of it was a metal plate, the rest was a cloth that dropped down another foot to stop spill. Lack of using it, (when using a green gel) created a green child. Going off of the picture you supplied of Zach's setup, I assume you are using just bulb. I might need to try that, and I like the idea of using one on each side, to keep it big, and even.

    I also would love to try that kind of material for doing the background. I was trying to use white muslin(and I have the issue of wrinkles), and I don't really have a large enough space in my home to get it to work properly. I had a huge issue of light spill, I'm not sure if it was spill from the flash, or the light merely bouncing off the background. I assumed it was off the background, but I never thought of that. I was thinking the spill issue was related to how far from the background the subject is. Having a huge space to work within, would of course make this easier to manage.

    One person noted that the recycle time on full power was real long. In the High Key Studio post she noted that her lights recycle really quickly, so I assume something like a second recycle time.

    You talk about your subjects always being on the move, how much wiggle room do you have with your setup before they are too close to the lights?

  • adam November 30, 2009 10:42 pm

    @Elizabeth, regarding simone's suggestion of a hair light, perhaps you can work it on a when-you-can basis.
    What about marking a spot on your floor with a little cross of tape where the subject needs to be for the hair light. You could then have the hair light in a different group to the rest of the lights (you said you use radio triggers).
    You can let the kids do their thing, with the hair light not firing, and then draw their attention to the hair-light zone (ask them to jump onto the x, or place a toy there). Switch the hair-light on (you'd have to be able to do that quickly), and fire a few with it on.
    Perhaps there's an advantage to having all the shots consistently lit... perhaps it would be worth a try.a

  • Vic DeWindt November 21, 2009 09:26 am

    Great photography. Thanks a lot.

  • Sara November 20, 2009 10:45 pm

    I'd like to see how you'd do this on a smaller scale, ie using a lightbox/softbox/whatever it's called. I bought a pop up one but don't really know how to use it!

  • Nic November 20, 2009 11:39 am

    We used to call the "white seamless background" as a cyclorama.

  • sam hicks November 20, 2009 06:27 am

    Elizabeth, great article you are spot on.
    LIghting always brings out the big disscusion, for me its personal preference, knowing what works with your camera, lens and studio set up. What and how you do it needs to suit the client and yourself.
    When you shoot for a living you have to work with your own guidelines and abilities.

    I Like to not follow any rules: http://samhickscomau.blogspot.com/

    I use manfrotto frames for my backdrops with both white seamless paper ( would love to try vinyl)
    Glad none of you coudl see me setting it up the roll was so long and so wide! LOL

    And the comment about diffusing/ bouncing light off, its spot on too!!
    we have used a white polystrene block and or corflute and come up with okay results see:

    For me to review my lighting positions i use the Light cage @ photoworkshop.com
    just go to 3D workshop and then click on artificial lighting, then click on light cage.

    This hint was given to me by Madsens camera www.madsens.com.au and imaging where I bought my studio set up. These people have been in the camera business for 42 years.

    The only way to work out what suits is to keep snapping, review and learn from others and their successes!!
    have a nice day!!

  • sam hicks November 20, 2009 06:01 am

    Great article Elizabeth, you are spot on. When you are taking photos for a living u soon come up with your way of doing things, for me i shoot very similar and some times i leave the studio lights on, no flash but im talking teen/ adult portrait shots occasionally.
    Kids!! my goodness your brave as they are so fast unless you engage them with a new toy or focus them on something interesting!

    Each camera & lens as we know has its own personality once you have worked out what it can do - its heaven!!

    For me to review my lighting positions i use the Light cage www. photoworkshop.com just go to 3D workshop and then click on artificial lighting, then click on light cage.
    This hint was given to me by Madsens cameras& imaging@ www.madsens.com.au This is where i bought my studio set up. These people have been in the camera business for 42 years.
    I use manfrotto frames for white and black seemless backdrops, I use paper but would like to try vinyal, concerned about the keeping clean thats why i use roll paper, and yes a camera with a flash diffused and bounced off the ceiling or even white corflute, polystryene does a wonderful job as well.Check out animal portrait by a close friend:

    Check out two such shots where by i dont follow tradition:
    have a great day and keep snapping!! its the only way to learn!!

  • Meghan November 20, 2009 05:17 am

    Elizabeth, How big is the room you shoot in? Is there white vinyl on the sides or just the backbround and floor?


  • Craig Maunder Photography November 20, 2009 04:50 am

    Like Lewis, in a studio setting (unless yours is huge), I'd have to imagine that f/16 would be perfectly fine and would reduce softness caused by diffraction. Lots of landscape photogs won't even go past f/16, and they're working at vastly greater distances.

    I work with speedlights rather than studio strobes, but with regards to the comments about hair lights, in my opinion after much trial and error the best results come from a light placed high behind the subject. Height needs to be sufficient to achieve a 30-45 degree downwards angle. It can be a strobe, a speedlight, even a north-facing window... the source is irrelevant, although you do want direct lighting without any modifiers generally. In a 1/2 to 3/4 portrait or a headshot, the hair light will spill fairly evenly onto the back of the head, illuminating hair all around the head... and will fall onto the shirt collar and shoulders, giving them separation from the background. This is particularly important with a dark shirt and dark background, but still nice regardless of background.

  • Lewis November 20, 2009 04:03 am

    In all the talk about using hazards of shooting f/22, I'm surprized no one mentioned the recyle time of the lights. If you want to do stop action shots, it's much easier to do when you don't have to wait as long for your flash to recyle. Maybe f/8 isn't enough DOF for your scurrying subjects but maybe f/16 is sufficient.

    @Guillermo: For Black seemless, just turn off the backdrop lights and use black material instead of white (or just make sure there is nothing behind your subject inrange of the flash).

  • Mc November 20, 2009 03:10 am

    Wow...f/22. It must light up like a bolt of lightning when you flash.

    I do type of shot all the time with children and never go smaller than f/8, f/11 on the background. The DOF is huge at that Aperture and you need not worry about OOF images.

    I also want to point out the shutter speed is not important here, The flash is what is stopping the action. There is Zero ambient light in this set-up so you could use 1/60th to 1/250th and the results would be the same. Try it.

    I think the lens might be the thing here that is causing the questions about the small aperture. The 18-200 goes down to something riduclous like f/36. Most lens max out at f/22. I would try this with a more suitable lens for this type of work and would bet your settings would change dramatically.

  • Alex Suffolk Photographer November 19, 2009 08:16 pm

    If you are looking for a pure white background with no light bleed around the subject - a good tip is to turn off the subjects light and shoot them with only the background lights.

    Adjust their output till you get pure white with a sharp black shilloutte of your subject - hey presto, pure white with no bleed :D

  • Northwest Photography November 19, 2009 09:39 am

    When I'm in a hurry and only have an hours studio time to do quite a few pictures I have a simple trick.

    I can get great pictures using just my camera (Nikon D300) and flash (SB-800). I put the subject in front of the white background and simply bounce the flash off the ceiling - no other lighting used at all. The only shadow is at the subjects feet so I simply crop the image to avoid the shadow. Not ideal in every situation I know, but it has saved my life many times, My advice is to not over-complicate things!

  • irene jones November 19, 2009 05:47 am

    @ Gathcity

    I described how I did this shot in detail in this blog post. I don't suggest using household blubs for something like this. I used a combination of monolights (white lightning for both main and hair light) and two Nikon SB800's for the background and another one for fill. I often will use one speedlight outside and turn the subject's back to the sun to achieve a similar look. Check out this post for information on flash in daylight.


  • GathCity November 19, 2009 05:17 am


    What type of light do you use for the 'hair light'.?

    I only have one flash and no strobes and usually shoot at my highest sync speed (200), so I'm not getting any other light in my shots. Household bulbs are not strong enough and sometimes produce a strange colour anyway.

    Anyone have any suggestions...other than turn down the shutter speed? Specific bulbs to buy, or something?

  • irene jones November 19, 2009 05:17 am

    @ Elizabeth
    You're right, Kids can be complicated! Thanks for the complement.

  • Elizabeth Halford November 19, 2009 05:03 am

    @irene: wow what a lovely comment thanks for the tip! And I LOVE that portrait! I would use one on perhaps an older child or teen, but with the little ones there's no telling where they will run!

    @simone: yep, the roll extends all the way down as much as possible to make an entire white area for shooting.

  • Simone November 19, 2009 04:28 am

    Do you extend this vinyl all the way to the floor, the one pic of the little looks at though the floor is completely white, I'm a newbie and I would like to take better pics of my granddaughter and I'm looking for pointers or the actual material needed to setup in in home studio, I've seen a few o the kits on amazon.com, but they don't like sturdy, or its just a piece of cloth, I would like white from top to bottom. sort of like this pic. The promo pic for the Art Institute AD right below my message.

  • irene jones November 19, 2009 04:03 am

    I just love how the comments on a blog always take on a life of their own! Like Elizabeth I shoot kids and families on a seemless backgrounds regularly and if there is anything I've learned in my short ten year career it's been that you have to use of the tools your camera/equipment provide to get the best work. If all I ever shot was at 1/160 @ F8 my work would be boring and lifeless. You can maybe make it for a few years using only one technique but the photographers that last are those that can do anything they imagine.

    I checked out the lighting diagram generator that Rich Durnan mentioned. FANTASTIC! All this time I was drawing stick figures in my blog and taking videos with my Mino HD Camcorder when I could be using this baby. Thanks Rich!

    Finally- have you thought Elizabeth about adding a hair or rim light? I do this on white, colored, and black seemless and it adds a great third dimension to the quality of the light. I always snoot my rim light and gobo the background to avoid lens flair. It works pretty good for me.
    Here's a sample:

    I gave a detailed description about how to set up this shot on my blog including a terribly drawn lighting diagram. It's good for a laugh!
    The post was supposed to be about the simplest of ideas, the rule of thirds but it ended up being about how I did this image.

  • Flores November 18, 2009 04:10 pm

    I actually wish the opposite, that is how to make background dark when taking outdoor picture. I do not find the technique, yet using my canon PS S5IS.

  • GathCity November 18, 2009 01:20 pm

    Great article! Just goes to show you, everyone does it a bit different. That's the beauty of it!

  • Scott Luce November 18, 2009 09:31 am

    Sorry, I really did not mean to start an argument.

  • Elizabeth Halford November 18, 2009 08:36 am

    @tuansands: thank you and you're right. Photographing children is a whole new ball game which I don't think some photographers could 'hack', not even the technically advanced ones. Kids don't care about the fstop, they care about running around and when you've got one kid in the background and one in the front, f8 doesn't cut it. And as far as DOF/Edge sharpness is concerned, the general consumer knows when they see a blurry picture, but they generally don't know about soft edges. Easier to produce more sellable images of children at f22. Technically precise? Perhaps not but that's not always the goal (I know, I know. Scandalous notion...feel free to jump down my throat now!)

  • Tuansands November 18, 2009 08:24 am

    To back Elizabeth up, people seem to be missing the point. f22 gives the greatest depth of field. When your subjects are children who move around a lot, f22 is very very useful. I have shot in similar situations a lot and always go for f16 and higher. I am aware of the image degradation issues, but they are outweighed by the issue of keeping children in focus. When you shoot at f8 you end up with a lot more out of focus shots, which makes any talk of sharpness at f8 academic, and when you are doing this professionally getting the maximum number of saleable shots in the shortest time is very important.

  • Keith November 18, 2009 07:48 am

    I know you're taking some heat for this already Elizabeth, but we are all here to learn. You are gaining nothing by shooting at f22. open that up to f8 and bump the iso to 200 and you've gained 4 stops of light and improved your image quality.
    Zack has an incredibly indepth series on isolation and shooting on seamless, I've read and refer to it.

  • Expat Tog November 18, 2009 06:16 am

    >>> Zack Arias is an amazing and renowned photographer who uses the same set-up as me....

    Perhaps saying, I use the same set-up as Zack Arias, would be more appropriate.

  • Clemens Roeother November 18, 2009 05:42 am

    Tell us about how you metered the exposure. Did you use a flash meter? Thanks.

  • Elizabeth Halford November 18, 2009 02:40 am

    @aseed: it would be possible to use less gear, I suppose, if I weren't photographing children. But I can't control where they decide to go within my set-up so it takes all of that equip. to properly and evenly light the whole stage. There are a million ways to do this and this is just a tutorial on the way I personally do it. Read many different tutorials and decide the best way forward for your own situation. Zack Arias is an amazing and renowned photographer who uses the same set-up as me - Google him he's brilliant.

  • aSeed November 18, 2009 02:27 am

    Strange tips... f22, flash full power, a 18-200 lense, 4 flash (if I understood)... that sounds weird...
    f8/11, flash on the right power, one for the model, one for the background... it's enough to start, isn't it?

  • ToddK November 18, 2009 12:43 am

    @Kevin C & Elizabeth: Kevin is correct in that too little or too much aperture will cause what he was describing about sharpness, but what Elizabeth is describing is depth of field (DOF), which effects what is in focus. So she is getting more of the photograph in focus by using a smaller aperture at the expense of fine sharpness.

    I too am a pixel peeper, so I agree that you will be able to see that fine sharpness degrading a little bit at those high apertures when viewing a picture pixel for pixel on a monitor, but once you actually print the photograph, and hold it at a comfortable arms length (or hang it on the wall), this degradation is barely, if not at all, noticeable.

    You will also minimize this too with better lenses.

  • Tuansands November 17, 2009 08:51 pm

    Great, clear explanation of a classic set-up. From my experience doing the virtually the same set-up with SMALL CHILDREN f22 is wonderful as it allows you to keep them in focus when they are bouncing around all over the place. f8 isn't particularly useful as the shallower DOF tends to result in many more out of focus captures. Not good when you are taking photos for a living. It is all well and good to talk about the theoretical sharpness that can be obtained from a lens, but sometimes reality doesn't cooperate (or keep still) an.

  • Owl16 November 17, 2009 04:10 pm

    Pls disregard the first part of my post above, for a second I thought continuous lights were used...

  • Owl16 November 17, 2009 03:54 pm

    Interesting way to blow the background... f/22 @ ISO 100 @ 1/200 requires an Exposure Value (EV) of ~"17" on the main subject and probably 18-19 on the background. Why go to all that trouble, even if you intentionally wanted soften the image?

    Models will be very uncomfortable with so much flash power. And consistent with the remarks above, f/22 will only soften the image on an APS-C. Essentially background can be easily blown out with 1+ EV over highlights in the main subject.

    The problem often is containing light spills. Experiment with light placement, background distance, etc...

  • Rich Durnan November 17, 2009 12:26 pm

    Would love to see a diagram of this set up to really clarify it. Have you seen the Lighting Diagram Creator? You should give it a try. I plugged it on my blog here. http://blog.richdurnanphoto.com/2009/09/lighting-diagram-creator.html

  • Kevin C November 17, 2009 10:32 am

    Elizabeth, just a few technical issues. Please look at the specifications for your 18-200mm lens. Here is a site:
    At 50mm, your sweet spot for sharpness is f/8. Anything beyond, diffraction (softness) will start to occur. At f/8-11, usually is the sweet spot with many APS-C cameras/lens combo. You can do an experiment shooting at different settings, zoom in to 1:1 ratio (1 pixel on camera mapped to 1 pixel on the monitor) and see what I mean by softness (black not as black, lines not as sharp, etc). You'll notice it more on print as it has much higher resolution. The difference is subtle when zoomed in, but it's there.

    Now, for the purpose of posting pictures on the internet (tiny 1600px resolution), it will not make such a big difference. No one will really notice. So if the goal is the internet, it makes little difference whether you shoot at f/4 to f/16. Whatever flaws occurs, will be hidden because the flaws are too small to see on the monitor.

    At any rate, highest f-stop will never give you the sharpest images. Your sweet spot will be somewhere plus/minus f/8 for most modern APS-C body/lens combo. You can look at specs or do your own testing to see what I mean. If your goal is to print on poster or zoom in or to crop pictures, setting the camera on the sweet spot is very important. If it's just internet sized pictures, it doesn't really matter-- the lens is sharp enough.

  • Elizabeth Halford November 17, 2009 10:04 am

    @scott & jesper: hmm I dunno really! They're unbelievably sharp for still shots, but I still struggle with stop-action stuff. Maybe it's the aperture? See? I'm always learning!

  • Jesper Revald November 17, 2009 08:55 am

    Wouldn't an aperture around F8/F11 be more around most lenses sweet spot? If the goal is sharp pictures, then F22 might give you a little diffraction, and unless you shoot with a hefty zoom, then f8/f11 should give your DOF plenty of reach for stubborn children :-)

    Thanks for the intro though. Just makes me dream even more about my upcomming "big lights" :)

  • Scott Luce November 17, 2009 08:36 am

    With your aperature at f22 how are your photos so sharp? Does diffraction soften up the photographs. I read so much about diffraction being so important and not to shoot above about f16 or you will have problems and then some other people say to shoot at f22

  • Guillermo November 17, 2009 07:12 am

    How would you do the opposite, i.e, the "black seamless"?

  • Jesse Kaufman November 17, 2009 06:49 am

    Great article ... after an article posted semi-recently, I was hoping to get a more technical look at exactly HOW this was created :) ... one thing, though, could you possibly add a diagram to show where the lights are? You do a great job explaining, there are just a few pieces that just aren't "clicking" for me. A diagram would clear that up in an instant :)