Backgrounds can make or break a photograph.
Only this week I was reminded of that with a perfectly acceptable photo an amateur photographer friend had taken- fine except that one of the people in it had a palm tree ‘growing out of his head’.
A technique I often use for features photos and portraits is to use a paper backdrop to avoid cluttered, messy or fussy backgrounds. Why paper? Well it is relatively inexpensive, durable and a quick and easy solution to the problem.
A background support system for paper rolls is pretty much an essential. Manfrotto make a very good and lightweight system for just this reason- their 1314B set comes complete with stands, a clever telescopic support pole, spring clamps and all supplied in a carrybag.
My old ‘other make’system had a support pole that had to be assembled and I often found the allen key used to lock it all together had gone walkabout. The Manfrotto one simply pulls out to the desired length-no tools required!
Stylishly engineered, the 1314B set has another novel idea incorporated into it’s design.
The background stands lock together to save space – very useful. I especially like the red leg locks on the stands which not only look cool but are also a joy to use.
Colours of the rainbow.
Colorama papers are available in 55 different colours, in different widths and lengths. I often use the half-sized 1.35 by 11 metre rolls as these fit easily into my smallish car for location work. If you are lucky enough to own or have access to a studio then the bigger sized rolls of 2.72 metres are obviously much easier to use for groups, etc. There are also 3.55 metre width rolls available in white, black, grey and greenscreen colours,(more on greenscreen later).
The most popular colours of white, light blue, grey and black are pretty essential for me, but it’s sometimes nice to also use a background paper with a splash of colour. That works especially well if the model’s clothing can be co-ordinated with the paper colour or contrasted with it. So a blue background with the model wearing the complimentary colour of yellow works well for instance. Or green and red for a striking contrast. Depending on your lighting you can even photograph a black subject or object against a black paper backdrop and the same goes for white objects like these snowdrops I photographed in my ‘studio’ at home, (actually the garage without the car in it). Backlighting is the key to this in order to get definition between the snowdrops and the white paper behind them.
A good quality paper will cope with a fair amount of use. One of the things I try to do is ask models beforehand to take off shoes as these can make holes in the background-not a great look!
Keep the model as far in front from the actual curve up to the top pole as your space will allow. Eventually the paper will get creased, torn or marked the more it gets used. Time to tear off a section and replace with fresh off the roll.
Product photos are generally no problem, but animals can be!
I’ve photographed poultry at the National Poultry Show a few times and whilst this Bali Duck was extremely well behaved, shortly afterwards a goose went slightly crazy and flapped it’s wings in a panic. The result was a shredded black background paper and a request for a different and more mild-mannered goose.
Over the years I’ve photographed many dogs and cats against paper backdrops and these are generally fine once they have been introduced and calmed down from the initial encounter.
This little dog was one such subject-photographed on a half roll of white at the owner’s home, (where the alternative was a highly patterned wallpaper).
I mentioned green screen or chroma key backgrounds earlier. What is that?
Well, it’s not something I use myself, but you will see it used a lot on television, especially on interviews.
The subject is photographed against a green background and then that background is ‘Chroma- Keyed’ or removed in post production and replaced with a different background. The reason the special green colour is used is because that colour is not found in any skin tones. Computer magic removes all the green and it can be replaced with a scene from somewhere else. The weather forecast is a good example of how green screen can be used. The presenter works against a chroma green background and knows where to point by looking at an out of shot monitor which shows the composite result. If you fancy trying some shots like this, my friend Peter Ford out in Montreal, shows the kind of effects you can achieve-
Whether you choose natural daylight, continuous lighting or flash with your backgrounds, the important thing to consider is the effect you are trying to achieve. Plenty of lights on the backdrop for a nice even look, or lit so that there is a gradation in the tone as the light falls off.
A snooted spot on the background can give a nice effect on some portraits and draw attention to the sitter. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the lighting and remember that by altering the distances between lights and background you can have several different effects from each colour. So a white background can be pure white or grey and a colour backdrop paper can be made lighter or darker in the same way.
On a roll
A note of caution when using background paper rolls, (and at some point we all learn about this when it happens to us, usually while the model looks on). The paper can unravel off the roll all of it’s own accord! There is of course an easy way to stop this and the Manfrotto background support system includes these items… Spring clamps. Once you have your paper roll up on the stands and prior to raising the height up, put a clamp inside the roll at each end and secure it to the cross beam.
Likewise you may need to fasten down the front edge of the paper which after a few uses tends to try and curl upwards. I find gaffer tape is invaluable to tape this down and my trusty Swiss Army knife to keep the job neat and tidy.
To wrap up, paper backgrounds are a cheap way to improve your photos and give them added punch. A good support system for them will last for many years and can be easily transported. If a location has a ‘busy’ background then a roll of paper can sort that out. Even a plain wall may result in ages spent retouching out marks, light switches and blemishes when editing, so quickly setting up the paper backdrop will eliminate all of this extra work.
Copyright Text and Photos by John Robertson/Peter Ford.