PHOTOSHACK.COM | Photography Tip #5: Preparing Backgrounds for Portraits

Photography Tip #5: Preparing Backgrounds for Portraits

October 10, 2012  •  1 Comment

Studio portraiture is more difficult in some ways than doing outdoors because you have to prepare the background (depending on the materials) as well as lighting it.  There are full set backgrounds costing thousands, computer printed canvas costing many hundreds, seamless paper, and a variety of cloth backgrounds.  For this tip, we'll cover just seamless and dyed muslin.

Seamless Paper

Seamless paper comes in any color you can imagine and is supported by background stands and a rod.  Often sold in 5 and 10 foot lengths, they are shipped and stored in tubes to keep them from damage.  This is often used in studios in combination with gels to create the look needed, as with this gray seamless lit with a red gel.  

Seamless gets worn quickly, so you must be prepared to cut off the area that is stood upon every few uses.  You have to let out enough paper to cover the entire shooting area in the foreground, and you have to be careful doing it or it will unroll in a rush and make awful creases and wrinkles.   Once you pull enough out to handle the set, you need to tape the paper down to the floor, at least at each end corner so that your subjects don't trip on them.  Although seamless can be used to give professional looks, it is also difficult to store and change from one color to the next.   You will need to store the 107" or 53" rolls of paper on end to avoid making the paper "settle" and go flat on one side; that will ruin the smooth look you are after and create a Photoshop retouching mess.  

You can order seamless paper from Adorama and B&H Photo.

Muslins for Backgrounds

An economical and versatile background is dyed muslin.  Dyed muslin is much less expensive than painted muslin, canvas or computer printed backgrounds,  yet the looks you can achieve are limited only by your creativity.  For just starting out, try for something like muted grays and blues; this way you can easily gel that for any color you can imagine. You can hang it on a background stand, bunch it in the middle or use spot grids on the lights to create drama.  You can mix multiple muslins or other fabrics to add depth to the set.

Here are a few sources of muslin backdrops:

The Backdrop Outlet

Owens Originals

There are the higher end Denny Manufacturing backgrounds but they are more expensive.  


When you light a background, it can show wrinkles and patterns that are unwanted and distracting which leaves you with lots of Photoshop clean up later.  So if you are going for a look that is muted, and the main focus is the subject, you want the muslin to hang smooth and appear to be a "painted canvas".   Here is an example of distracting creases and wrinkles:

These wrinkles are annoying mostly because the aperture had to be f8 in order to keep the three faces in sharp focus; unfortunately the depth of field didn't blow out the background enough to hide them...a photoshop nightmare.  Below is an example of a brown muslin background with a blue gel, shot at f5.6.  The background is about five feet from the subject.

Note that if you are using black muslin for low key or white muslin for high key, keeping wrinkles off isn't a problem because you are either keeping the light off the background or you are over-exposing for clean whites...more on that in another Tip.

Making Your Muslin Wrinkle Free

To keep your muslin smooth, you will want to hang your muslin on a lightstand and clamp it on four to six points to stretch it as smooth as possible.  

Using heavy spring clamps to make muslin taut If the muslin is not wide enough to reach both sides of the light stand, clamp to one side and the double up on clamps to reach the edge..these clamps available at any hardware store are super strong.

Then you will want to steam the muslin smooth which frankly is a pain in the keister, but made easier with the use of an industrial garment steamer by Jiffy Steamers.  They put out a really good blast of steam and it is almost like ironing the background.  This one is probably 40 years old and still works like a champ.   You can prop the steamer on a stepladder so you can reach all the way to the top using the metal hook to gain extra reach.  You will sweat when you are done.  Think of it as a free spa facial.


Once you've stretched your muslin taut and removed the wrinkles, you are ready to light it.  More on lighting in another Tip!!


Learn these techniques and more with my "hands on" Photography Mentoring session.


Charlie Kevin(non-registered)
Thanks a lot for this article, I have been looking to know more about muslin and its cost being a starter. Now I am clear and thanks again for this article:)
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