Black and White Backdrops

Recently I shot Candace Nirvana. This was a chance to try out my new backdrops, fixing problems with my earlier backdrops. The backdrops were commercial ones, purchased from the Backdrop Outlet. I tried both black and white ones.

Both worked far better than the muslin I had tried earlier. I could get the black one to go completely black, and the white to be completely burned out. These were good improvements.

Black background behind a woman in purple dress holding a coffee cup
Candace in front of a black backdrop
The black backdrop really makes your eye go to the lighter parts of the image. In the example here, this is her skin. In general, when an image contains a face, your eyes naturally seek out the eyes. With a black backdrop, this effect seems to be enhanced.

I did have to ensure that I had a hair light from above and behind to make sure that her hair was separated from the backdrop. Dark hair on a light-skinned model makes for more of challenge due to the contrast. Add to this the need to not lose the hair in the background, and the lighting is not trivial.

For this image, there are four lights: The primary lights are a “softbox” created by placing a diffuser in front of a flash that is left and forward of her, and an umbrella forward, right, and above her. The secondary lights are two hair lights above and behind her on the left and right. Each light that is added is one more that has to be balanced with all the others, so the complexity is higher than I would have liked. Also, in spite of all of the lights and softeners, I still had harder shadows than I would have liked. For example, look at her hair shadows on the right side of her face (her right).

Another point I learned was that I really need to be able to mount lights on the crossbar of the backdrop holder. Then, I could have used a single light with a grid as a hair light.

Woman with white shirt in front of a white backdrop
Candace in front of a white backdrop

I also worked with my white backdrop. If I lit it, I could burn it out, creating a solid white background, which makes darker hair easy to work with. However, I was getting a lot of reflected light from the backdrop onto her skin, which was a different challenge. I could have moved her forward, but the backdrop only came so far (I should have invested in the larger one…). For photos like this one, it would have been an acceptable solution, because I was not showing her feet.

A white shirt and a white backdrop makes for a challenge when trying to avoid burning out the shirt while doing just that with the backdrop.

Lighting the backdrop with fewer reflections onto the model would have been easier with barn doors or something similar on the backdrop lights.

One final issue was wrinkles. Both the black and the white backdrops had wrinkles in them from being folded. They did show up in the pictures, which makes more work for me since I want a smooth background. Both of the images on this page had visible wrinkles that I took out. Next time, I’ll try dampening them and putting them in a cool dryer to see if that helps. I guess I could break out a iron as well. Anybody have other ideas?

Soft Light

Soft light comes from a diffuse source. The classic example is an overcast day, where the light comes from everywhere and there are few, if any shadows. Other examples of soft light include studio softboxes, diffusers, and reflected light from a large surface (e.g., a ceiling). All of these need to be near the subject, otherwise they begin to act more like hard light…move an umbrella reflector away from the subject and the light becomes harder.

Shadows on an object lit with soft light have a less-defined edge, and they are not as dark. Because it does not highlight blemishes, scars, and wrinkles, soft light tends to be more flattering for people. For this reason, portraits normally use soft light, as do some glamor shots.

Here are some of my favorite soft-light shots illustrating this type of lighting.

The light on his face is bounced from the rock he is looking at, creating a light soruce that is effectively as large as the lit area of the rock.

The primary light source is a large diffuser to the right that the flash unit is lighting up.. Effectively, the size of the light source is about three by two feet . You can see that the shadows have plenty of detail in them.

This is the second in a series of blog entries about hard and soft lighting. The previous entry is Hard Light.

Simple studio

Until very recently, all of my photography has been on location. This means that have never really used a studio. As an experiment, I built a simple studio in my living room to experiment. Parts were a success, and parts need additional work. Here’s a sample photo, only lightly edited, from that experiment.

Couple looking at each other with love in their eyes
An example of using a simple studio setup

What worked
The backdrop stand I made from two pieces of half-inch conduit set in Quickrete in buckets. I used another piece of conduit for the cross piece, and a pair of connected conduit hangers to hold the crosspiece. If there’s sufficient demand, I’ll take pictures of all of the pieces. I held the backdrop on the crosspiece with simple 1-inch clamps. The whole set of materials cost under $30 (I forget how much) at a local hardware store. If I was doing it again, I’d get slightly larger buckets for improved stability, but what I have worked OK.

What did not work
At the hardware store, I purchased a 9×12 ft muslin drop cloth. I had thought it was a great idea because it was heavy (I had read about people’s problems with some muslin being too thin). This certainly had no problems with transparency. However, like most (all?) muslin, it really wrinkles. I was hoping the depth-of-field and/or overexposing it would take care of the wrinkles. Not always.

There were two reasons that the wrinkles were problems. I had a dedicated backdrop light, but it was not quite good enough for the job. I needed it to produce better diffused light, but all my light-softening devices were in use for the model(s). Yet one more thing on the to-buy list (plus more light shaping options). In some cases, I was able to over-expose the muslin, and the problems went away. However, because of problem number two, not quite enough distance between the model(s) and the backdrop, there were many times when the light reflecting back from the backdrop was a problem and it had to be toned down. In 20-20 hindsight, I could have lowered the crosspiece to gain more room in front, especially when I was shooting just the shorter model. However, the real solution is to get different material for the backdrop. A quick Google search led me to multiple companies who sell backdrops that do not wrinkle, and they are not too expensive (around $100-150).

Next photo shoot, I will think about whether or not having a backdrop with me would be useful or not. It is yet more stuff for me (or my assistant) to carry, and the bucket with concrete is not too portable. Yes, I know about light stands and crosspieces. I have one light stand, but I tend to use it for holding a light, diffuser, or reflector. I use tripods (I own several of varying sizes) for holding other lights. Plus, I have a voice-activated carbon-based bipod that holds lights and can even adjust them as needed.