Where you position lights, the modifiers you use and how you use reflectors are all crucial aspects of studio photography technique. However, while concentrating on these aspects of studio technique, it is easy to forget what lies behind your subject – but choosing the most appropriate background colour or type to suit your photographic style or subject is very important. Just remember that the background is an integral part of every picture so it is vitally important that you pay it at least some of your attention.
Of course, what you are shooting and your reasoning can vary your choice of background massively. For example, most of the product images in this magazine are shot on plain white paper with even lighting to get good all-round detail. That’s the default set-up. White means that the magazine’s designer can do ‘cut-outs’ quickly but as a result, changing the background’s colour or extending it is also simple. Shooting on coloured backgrounds can be problematic and a waste of time.
White is the most used colour for packshots but it is widely used for people pictures too, especially lifestyle images that are popular with photographic studios at the moment. The great thing with white backgrounds is that if you throw some light onto it (as we saw in last month’s Lighting Academy) then it stays white, but keep light off it and it can go anywhere from a light grey to almost black. Use split lighting, move the subject a few metres away and the background will go very dark indeed.
If you have to pick just one background colour, white is the one to go for because it is probably the single most versatile colour backdrop that you can buy, closely followed by a mid-grey. Throw a decent amount of light onto a mid-grey background and it will come out almost white. It is also easy to get a graduated effect by keeping light off it. Plus, if you want to add colour using gels, the results can be better on grey than using a white background: as we show here.
All the shots on the previous page were done with coloured lighting gels that were held in place on the spill kill with crocodile clips. As there’s a lot of heat generated by the flash tube and modeling light, do make sure that you use filter gels that have been specifically designed for lighting use. Our gel filters were bought from www.sabre-international.com but you can also try www.karlu.com, www.formatt.co.uk, www.leefilters.com and www.studiolighting.co.uk for more details. We also used a collapsible Lastolite 67GW White/Mid Grey 1.8x2.15m (6x7feet) that costs around £150.
An Elinchrom beauty dish was used on the key light for our coloured background set-up. Two black reflector panels were placed close to both sides of model Steffi. The position of the backlight remained constant throughout.
The lighting on Steffi remained constant with enough output to allow an aperture of f/11 at ISO 100. In fact the whole lighting set-up remained the same, and only the filter gel itself and power output of the background light was varied. Use more power and the colour is more vibrant and can be almost too garish or too pale depending on the filter’s colour. The moral here is to vary the power settings and see what you prefer.
Backgrounds need support and a variety of systems, portable and permanent, are available.
The best-known permanent support is the Manfrotto Expan hook system where you can hold up to three background rolls in place and each can be retracted or lowered by pulling a plastic chain. If you prefer, this system is portable too and with Autopoles and stands you can use it as a freestanding system – or the Autopoles can fit in between the floor and ceiling.
Simpler, cheaper, convenient and more portable free-standing systems are available. These comprise two stands and an extending crosspole that runs through the centre of the background roll or onto which the cloth background is clamped. A spare clamp and gaffer tape can be used to hold the background in position and to stop the rest of the paper roll unfurling.
Lighting Kit: Cloth or paper: which to go for?
The simple answer is ‘both’ because both have their good and less good points.
Paper rolls are available in three widths: 1.35m, 2.72m and 3.55m. It is the 2.72m (or nine feet) that is the most widely used and a roll of 11m length will cost around £50.
On the downside, paper rolls are difficult to transport. A 2.72m wide roll will fit a good-sized estate car but in a typical hatchback you would have to cut off a couple of feet off the end to get it in. Or, if you're feeling flush, buy a roofrack.
Paper rolls also cost you money to use because you usually have to throw the last few metres away after a shoot.
On the plus side, a freshly unrolled piece of paper background is always free of wrinkles and there’s a massive choice of colours available. Unrolled they give a gentle curve where the paper hits the ground and with good lighting you won’t see the ‘join’.
Cloth backdrops are easier to transport but they can emerge with wrinkles and obvious fold lines, although this depends on the material and wrinkle free backgrounds are available. Wrinkles can be a real problem if you can’t move the subject further away from the background because even wide apertures give enough depth-of-field to make flaws really obvious.
A version of cloth backgrounds is the collapsible model. These, from Lastolite and Interfit, for example, open up to 6x7feet or 5x6feet and fold-down to a more easily portable size. Also, being on a metal frame means that wrinkles are no problem and the material is held taut when the background is opened ready for use.
Shades of grey
The Lastolite 67GW White/Mid grey backdrop was used for these images (left) to show that white, grey, graduated and almost black are possible just by altering the backlight.
Model Steffi was lit by an Elinchrom 400EX head fitted with a softbox and the meter reading was f/16 at ISO 100. Another Elinchrom head was aimed straight at the collapsible background. For the grey background, the backlight was metered at f/16 to match the light falling on model Steffi. To produce a white background from the grey backdrop the backlight’s output was increased to give a meter reading of f/22. For the graduated effectthe light unit was angled down and for the black, the background light was just turned off.
An Elinchrom softbox was placed high above Steffi for classic butterfly lighting, and a Lastolite Triflector was placed below to bounce light up under her chin to give a flattering, soft beauty light. The Triflector's panels are adjusted to give the best result. An Elinchrom unit fitted with a standard spill-kill was used to light the backdrop.
Placing a flash unit behind the subject facing towards the camera will backlight the hair and give a rim lighting effect. Just take care to avoid showing the light unit in shot and also to make sure that you don’t suffer from flare. In the shots below Steffi is lit with a softbox from the front with a Lastolite Triflector under her chin.
A snoot can be used to concentrate light more finely but even a normal spill kill reflector can work.
With a lighting unit placed to one side of the model, a reflector panel should be strategically placed so that no light bounces back and strikes the camera lens.