White Seamless Tutorial :: Part 1 :: Gear & Space
Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, and countless other great photographers have rocked the white background for decades. I recently went to a huge bookstore here in Atlanta and counted the number of magazine covers shot with a simple white background like we are going to investigate here. 87 COVERS SHOT ON WHITE OR A VARIATION OF A WHITE BACKGROUND. Eighty-seven magazine covers at one book store. Its everywhere and it is everywhere because it is simple and effective and makes your subjects pop. It beats the bloody hell out of any wrinkled up grey/blue/brown muslin any day of the week. Walk into a Target store this week and look at the in-store signage. How did I learn to shoot like this? Because this is how we shot JC Penney’s catalogue clearance images when I shot for them. Need to add text and other artwork to a photo? A simple white background lets you do so all day long.
If I had but one backdrop to use for portraiture I would choose a simple roll of white seamless paper. With one roll of paper you can create many options. For the rest of the week I’m going to break it down for you. We are going to look at getting it to pop to pure white, making it various shades of grey, getting it to go black, gelling it to any color in the rainbow, and doing very easy and quick changes in post production to further the visual options available to us when using such a simple background.
As simple as it is, it can be easy to mess up too. I hope to help you out like other photographers have helped me along the way.Before we get into the shooting technique for this, let’s start from the start and look at the gear and resources needed to pull this off.
1. Space Considerations :: The more room you have the less bad words will come out of your mouth. A 20×20′ room with 10′ or higher ceilings is a great place to start. You can do it with less but you’ll have more challenges to face and make this more of a pain in the arse then it needs to be. Trying this in a spare bedroom with 8′ ceilings is going to drive you mad and you’ll sound like the dad in A Christmas Story as he worked on the furnace. You can do it… you’ll just use more cuss words doing so. A hard floor surface is desired. Plush carpeting will bring more cursing. If you are doing this on carpet, lay down an 8′x8′ foundation of 1/2″ plywood so you have something sturdy for your subjects to stand on.
My current studio allows me to have a space that is about 15′ wide by 40′ in length. I really wish I had 20′ in width. I would say 80% less cuss words if my area was wider. My ceilings are about 11′ in height and I wish they were 14′ but you do what you can with what you have. My old studio had a cyc wall that was 20′ wide by 40′ long with 14′ ceilings and I never ever said a single bad word when lighting a set.
BTW – Cyc is short for “cyclorama”. Also known as an infinity wall. Think of it as a permanent roll of seamless paper from floor to ceiling that can be painted over and over again. They are worth every bit of the few thousands of dollars they cost to have built properly. You only want one built if you know for sure you will be in your space for a long time because you’ll never want to leave it.
2. Lights :: Three lights are pretty much the minimum you are going to need for this. They’ll do everything you need to have done for the most part. 95% of my pure white background images are shot with 3 lights. I don’t care what kind of lights they are. 3 Alien Bees, 3 Travelites, 3 Norman heads, 3 Canon 580′s, 3 Nikon SpeedLites, whatever. I will say that you want more power than less for much of this. You can pull it off with hotshoe flashes but you’ll use 47% more cuss words with small flashes as opposed to more powerful strobes like Alien Bees or Dynalites etc. You can rock the pure white with OneLight and/or two lights but if you want to make life better and your studio to be more of a PG rated environment, go with three lights.
3. Seamless, stands, and misc. grip gear :: You are going to need to 2 solid stands to hold your 9′ wide roll of seamless paper up. You’ll need a sturdy crossbar to go through the roll of paper that gives you at least 3 inches of room on each side of the roll. You can use a 10′ long section of 1.5″ PVC pipe from Home Depot or the like. I then use super clamps to attach the pole to the stands. The following links will take you to B&H.
Savage 107″ (9 feet wide) white seamless paper. :: $40 :: You don’t have to have “super white”. A light, light grey can work as well but just plain ol’ white will do it. Try to find it locally as shipping can sometimes cost more than the seamless. It is heavy stuff. Also note – Store your seamless paper standing up. DO NOT store your seamless laying flat on the ground. If you store it flat you will get ripples through the whole roll eventually.
Matthews Super clamps (you need two of them) :: $27 each.
OR… Just buy a background support kit like this Impact set-up. For $99 you get 2 stands, a crossbar that fits on the stands, and a bag to carry it in. I prefer using stronger stands, super clamps, and metal cross bars but a kit will work for you. You get what you pay for though. Cheaper support kits are going to give you more problems. Pick up two sandbags ($22 each) to help keep the whole thing grounded.
1 or 2 A clamps :: $4 each :: You need these to hold the paper on the roll once you have rolled it out. Get a good roll of gaffer tape as well. Don’t be so ghetto that you cheap out and use duct tape. Have a little dignity and use some good industry standard tape!
3. Cutters / Flags / Gobos and tile board :: When we set up to go with a pure white background in our photo we want 2 lights on the background and we don’t want that light to spill on to our subject directly from the strobes. We need some sort of cutter/flag to keep the subject from being lit by those lights hitting the white seamless. You can score a 4×8 sheet of 1/4″ foam core down the vertical center to stand them up. I used those for a long time but they fall over easily. I have now moved to using 2 bi-fold doors that I bought at Home Depot for $20 each. I painted one side of each set white. You can use barn doors on your strobes or whatever. You just want to make darn sure that the light from the strobes hitting the background DOES NOT directly hit your subject. Using tall cutters like the bi-fold doors makes things much easier on you.
Tile Board :: $11 per 4×8′ sheet at Home Depot. This stuff rocks. This is going to give you a nice white floor and a reflection under your subject. You need a few sheets of it. Check out the photo below to get the exact stock number. You can find it at Lowes as well. You’ll find these either in the area where they keep paneling or in the bath fixtures department as it is used to wall in showers and bathrooms. You want the pure white smooth kind. They have some that has a bit of a pebbled texture to it. Don’t bother with that stuff. It is brown on the back side which actually photographs beautifully as a background when thrown a bit out of focus. Its a floor! Its a background! Make the most out of what you have!
Here is a photo of the basic set up for going pure white.
And here is the tile board you want to get…
Here is the Super Clamp attached to a light stand and holding the cross bar.
Setting up the seamless is going to be the biggest pain in the arse for you. Get it on the stands about face level and roll it out to the floor until it starts to roll back on itself on the floor. Roll out as much slack as you can but don’t allow it to wrinkle or crease. Attach an “A” clamp to the roll and crossbar to keep it from rolling out any more. Extend one stand up a bit. Then go to the other side and extend that up a bit. Then go back to the other side and extend that up a bit. Rinse and repeat until you get the roll all the way to the ceiling. Having another person makes it MUCH easier. You’ll make sailors blush if you are doing this on your own. It could be an olympic sport really.
Get on a ladder and let out some more paper from the top and pull it out toward and lightly tape it to the floor. Let out some more paper and pull it back some more. Crap. Not only is it a pain to do, it is a pain to describe. If any of you can’t wrap your head around the set-up, I’ll shoot a little video on it or something.
Here is the “A” clamp holding the paper from rolling out any more.
DO NOT just let your seamless sit up there without being clamped. When that stuff starts to unroll on it’s own, you’ll just want to jump off a bridge at that point. Trust me. I know.
One last thing on gear notes here…
Lens Choice :: When you start shooting into the background when you have lit up like a roman candle you will find that one lens may perform better than another in this situation. When you light that white background you are essentially shooting INTO a very large light source. You can run into all sorts of flare and chromatic aberration (CA) problems with some lenses. I know that my Nikon 35mm f2 and my Nikon 105mm f2 lenses perform really well for this. My Nikon 50mm 1.8 looks like butt. Ugly butt. It is worthless when shooting on a pure white background due to flare and CA and it adds a big ugly purple spot right in the dead center of the photo. A Nikon 50mm 1.4 holds up much better. My 80-200 f2.8 also looks horrible. My 85 f1.8 does “ok” but it isn’t that great. You’ll just need to test a few of your lenses for this. You may find that a zoom works better at one end of the focal length than the other.
That wraps up Part 1 of this tutorial.
Next, I will be talking about setting up the lights and finding your exposure without a light meter. A light meter sure does help for this but I rarely, if ever, pull the light meter out simply because I have shot this stuff so many times I have my formula worked out.
ETA – If you have questions about any of this, drop them in the comment section here on Part 5 of the tutorial. I will be following up on this tutorial with a new post answering all the questions at once.