How to Screw Up a White Background

DSC_9109.jpgWhite backgrounds are very popular for just about every kind of studio shot that might come along. Fashion, beauty, headshots, etc, etc, etc. So knowing how to do a white background properly is pretty basic stuff. So how did I screw that up you might ask. I’ll give you the answer in a second.

To do a white background it’s pretty simple. Get a roll of white seamless paper, white foamcore, whatever and make sure that you light it so it turns out actually white. The easiest way to do this is setup two lights with umbrellas painted at 45º at equal distance from the paper. Get them as even as you can and you are gold. Just a couple of notes. If you are really really picky about your exposure and know your camera’s sensor/film very very well you can get away with a background exposure at whatever your taking aperture is, i.e. incident meter at your seamless = your camera f-stop. If you are like the rest of us about 1-stop over exposed at the seamless will be great. A lot of people just starting to monkey around with this stuff go way overboard in dumping light on the white seamless because that’s what they think they want. Namely they want it to blow it out. Now here’s the issue, if you do that you will be fighting major flare unless your background is about a mile and a half away from your subject. Exaggeration to make a point, the point being use as little light as required to make the background go white, since the paper is actually white it doesn’t take much.

So in the course of this demonstration I was not doing any of that stuff I just rambled on about, I was just giving a quick tip of how to get a headshot with a white background without going through all the fuss of setting up a couple of lights and getting out the background stand etc. I just took a white umbrella with attached to a strobe head that I was using as a rim light and stuck it behind the model. This works great for a quick white background headshot, problem is I didn’t do anything but move the light. Maybe I should have cranked the power down a bit, like all the way. The light is only about a foot from the umbrella so it takes about no power to turn it white. Instead of getting white I got nasty flare that reduced the contrast of the shot to absolute garbage. I think I took about three images. See how the contrast is screwed here, that’s lens flare. See the pixelated nonsense going on in the hair on the right, that’s what happens when you go way overboard on the backlight. So take a couple of things away. One, do not use more light than required to make your white background go white. Two make yourself a mental checklist and go through it every time on every set. You will be glad you did. By the way this image has the blacks crushed like crazy to get some actual black in the image. I couldn’t bear to put it up in the state it came out of the camera, even with the blacks crushed it still looks flare-y and contrast challenged. Anyway keep those couple of things in mind and the umbrella trick is still a great way to get a white background for a headshot when you don’t have or don’t feel like setting up a couple of extra lights and white seamless.

RB

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