The most flexible studio background is an infinity cove wall and a stock of paint. White paint will do fine, if your idea of a perfect image is a field of unblemished light in which your subject can float. The first time I walked into a three-sided infinity cove lit by suspended reflector panels I nearly hit the floor, losing all visual cues and depending on balance alone to stay upright.
But a pure white studio has its downside. Whatever light you use on the subject is bounced everywhere, contrast becomes hard to create and subtractive lighting (black flags) becomes the only way to give a three-dimensional feel to people and objects. When coves are created today, they are often just a simple curved scoop that can be imitated using paper or vinyl; they rarely extend to the ceiling or include a curved corner.
The most versatile studio is probably one with full windows blackout and a matt black paint job, into which you can introduce a wide range of different backgrounds and control the effect and contrast of lighting fully. For as long as anyone remembers, backgrounds have come in full width (nine feet), half-roll (53 inches) and extra width (12 feet), originating from paper rolls on cores but ending up with vinyl, fabrics, oilcloths, and painted canvas. Studios, in turn, have normally been created in spaces large enough to take at least the nine feet standard width with space for lighting. The rolls are normally 36 feet long, and you need about 12 feet for a full-length shot with a curve and some floor foreground. In the UK, a nine-feet roll costs around £50-£60, which visiting overseas photographers find hard to believe as it’s less than half that in the US and many other countries.
The best-known paper brand is Colorama, closely followed by BD and Savage. Despite the decline in the use of paper rolls you can still get a wide choice of colours, with Arctic White and Oyster (a slightly cream-buff colour) as the big sellers. Black is an essential because you can also cut lengths of it to shape lighting just as you can fashion big reflectors out of white paper. Neutral greys are useful because with the help of background lighting, or absence of it, they can appear to be anything from white to black – they have names such as Studio Grey or Fashion Grey, which more or less tells you the market. Colorama now makes a six-feet width, as the trend to smaller vehicles means fewer photographers invest in big estate cars and vans to take nine-footers on location.
The high cost of background paper today has opened the European market to many alternatives. Colorama, of Coalville, is no longer just into paper rolls and the prefabricated coves it once made. Matt, flock, velour, gloss, all kinds of roll other than “plain paper” are now in the range. Lastolite has been a big innovator, popularising scrubbable, long life, white vinyl. At around £200 for the nine-feet size, it has to outlast four rolls of white paper, which countless busy portrait studios and event photographers say it does. With enough light, even a well-travelled and tramped-on vinyl looks pure white. Lastolite also invented the collapsible folding background, a fabric drumskin with a twist-fold steel rim in all sizes from passport white to three-quarter length portrait painted cotton.
The collapsible concept is now used by many other brands. But Lastolite kept ahead by designing new types of background using the same principle, notably the Hilite, which is like a two-skinned sandwich of translucent white, about a foot thick. You put lights at either side aimed between the skins, and it creates a pure white cutout style shot. It can also become a huge (6×7 feet or larger) soft light source.
Westcott, introducing its US-marketed range to the UK in 2011 through JP Distribution, use a flock-like velour patterning on fabric for its “Modern Vintage” drops. These are 2.7m wide and at 3.6m long – just right for full-length shots. They have a wallpaper-like pattern on a large scale and no seams (unlike real wallpaper) or surface sheen (unlike most fashionable papers). They can be lit to reveal texture, or underlit to form just a faint hint of pattern, and have a slightly Victorian-gothic feel.
On a smaller scale, printed or textured backdrops for still life shots are not so fashionable. The graduated flexible, scrubbable vinyl sheets once universal in studios no longer sell well. Calumet says the main reason they are still offered is for museums, auction houses and a few other big users who want a neat, ready-made, graduated tint with white base. Pictures for Ebay are more likely to be taken in tents that include a white platform, as made by Lastolite and many others.
“Isolated on white” or “cut-out” is the requirement from many picture libraries, not isolated on a subtle graded colour. Photoshop can now put any required background behind an isolated image, with or without cutting paths. In the past, Dr Heny J Oles’ front-projection system, Scene Machine, was popular with portrait, commercial and fashion studios using a library of 35mm background slides. Today’s equivalent is green screen, and all that’s needed is to shoot the subject in front of an even-lit green panel (available in roll paper, painted fabric roll, vinyl, collapsible fabric and as emulsion paint to cover any wall you like). Specialised green-screen software or Photoshop does the background drop-in later on, from any digital image to suit.
Green screen works best in a black studio with the coloured panel kept to minimum size. This is because green light reflected from the screen can influence the overall colour balance, especially in the shadows and darker tones, on the subject. Blue screen is an alternative, sometimes preferred because it has a more natural effect if stray colour is reflected. You can get both options from Calumet.
There is nothing to prevent any strong colour that does not appear in the subject from being used the same way, with the caveat about reflected light. Traditional studio backdrops use random painting or dyeing, for a mottled or “Old Master” look. While you can find strong colours, subtle blends of warmer colours, neutrals or natural-looking desaturated blues and greens are most common.
When colour negative film was universal for portraits, there was a good reason to avoid strong colours – the auto colour balancing of machine prints would result in orange faces against grey, instead of normal faces against blue. White backgrounds produced darker faces, black backgrounds yielded skin-tone washout. That’s why neutrals and certain painted colours became dominant. In the digital age, the reason has disappeared. In theory you can now use all kinds of colours and densities of background, a fixed white balance and exposure, and have optimum skin tones no matter what else you change.
One of the best sources for backgrounds in the UK is LuxS Studio Decor of Beaminster in Dorset. It represents Denny, the old traditional US “canvas drop” maker now updated with digitally printed set-pieces on canvas cloth rolls. You can get almost anything you want (its website example is the staircase of the Titanic – good idea or not?) and order from a catalogue of designs and pictures. Panelled rooms, library bookshelves, woodland scenes, snowscapes, even graffiti-covered walls can be bought and in some cases hired.
You can go one better and have your own photography or design put on to a rollerblind, wallpapers or flooring by Printed Space of Morecambe, Lancashire. Printed vinyl cushion flooring can be hung vertically and formed into a scoop or cove, it does not have be used on the floor – roller blinds can be used for pull-down photo scene backdrops, they are not limited to fitting in your windows. Printed wallpaper requires a perfect plastered wall, and skilled hanging, but like most Printed Space products it’s something an enterprising photographer can sell as well as use.
Of course, if you own a suitable inkjet printer – 17-inches or A2+ is a bit narrow; 24-inches is ideal for wallpaper; 42-60-inches best for portrait background single sheets – you can make your own drops. Digital wallpaper types include Phototex, which has its own adhesive and can be removed or repositioned. As for cost, less than £300 buys 30 metres of 42-inches, and it’s likely your inkjet cartridges will cost far more than the wallpaper itself. Other papers are pasteable more like traditional decorating materials; a typical vinyl will be around half that price. Suppliers such as PlotIT (Worcester) or Graphic Design Supplies (Macclesfield) service the signwriting and exhibition industries more than the photographic, but many photographers have inkjet printers that can print backgrounds.
Next time you have a small product to shoot, and a spare sheet of A2 paper, try it. From abstract to real scenes, there’s probably a world of backgrounds in your own photo files you have never exploited.
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