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Using white backgrounds in the studio

Using white backgrounds in the studio - Chris Burfoot shares his photographic advice on lighting white backgrounds correctly.

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Portraits and People

Words and images by Chris Burfoot.

Too much white White background

When using a white background it is very important that it is not over lit. The white background will act as a reflector and bounce a huge amount of light back towards your camera and onto the back of your subject.

Many magazine articles and a few enthusiastic camera club members have told me that, to get a pure white background it should be over-exposed by two f-stops! I can tell you here and now that do not agree with that at all unless you have a massive studio with a huge distance between the background and subject!

Lets think about this logically. If you are photographing someone wearing a white shirt and you expose that person correctly, what color would his shirt be on the image? It would of course reproduce as white because it IS white! So if we had a clean, smooth, white background and we exposed it correctly is would also reproduce as white – because it IS white.

Once you understand this concept it becomes much easier to understand. Now, the difference between his shirt and the background is that on the shirt we want to see the texture of the fabric, the stitching, button holes etc etc. On the background we don’t! So yes we do have to over-expose the background to make it pure white.

As we have said, a white background, if correctly exposed will reproduce as white - because it IS white. If you overexpose it by 2 f-stops it will throw back so much light it would overexpose the edge of your subject so much, that you would lose all the edge definition (especially around the hair). You can see the effect here - notice also that because of the flare in the lens the colour of the whole image has become de-saturated and the contrast reduced!

The easiest white background is obtained by using smooth un-creased paper or a white smooth wall. White paper only requires around 1.0 f-stop more than the subject to ensure a clean, pure white background. Very similar to paper is white vinyl but be careful as there is vinyl and there is vinyl!

Cheap vinyl may seem a bargain but is it really? If you are using it in your own studio and have a hard floor then it should be fine. But if you are going to use it in different place – such as hotels for event photography you will probably have carpet to deal with. Imagine putting paper on top of carpet and then standing on it – especially with stiletto heels! Lots of little holes!! Cheap vinyl will do the same!

Before I purchased my vinyl background I did a lot of research on the different makes. The best I found and ended up buying was one from Studio Décor (studiodecor.co.uk) their vinyl has a fabric weave in it and I have now had mine for over 5 years. I have mopped it, scrubbed it, and used an alcohol cleaner on it. It has done countless courses and many events, glamour shoots etc. It’s just as good now as it was 5 years ago, a great investment!

White cloth backgrounds absorb some of the light and require a little more light to burn out the creases but this has to be very carefully controlled.

Tip: Once you have your background lights set up turn any front light(s) and take a picture. Check your preview screen and your subject should then be a silhouette. Any loss of edge definition will be easy to spot!

Words and images by Chris Burfoot.

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