General Information, Backdrops for Studio and Location Work
What are the main types of backdrops? Money saving tips for getting the most for your photographic background dollar.
Seamless Paper Photographic Backgrounds
The most basic photographer backdrop is the seamless paper. Normally found in 53-140” rolls in a variety of colors, this basic easy backdrop costs about $20-30 per roll. Choice of colors is very individual and specific to the application. A portrait photographer is likely to want colors to set off the skin tones: white, grays and black are useful. The colored paper is so widely used that colors behind a subject by themselves tends to look canned. For product photography, a color in contrast to the product is best.
Roller systems for hanging backdrops include ones for one roll, or several rolls. Some are motorized. Expect to pay about $200-400.
Muslin is another staple. Muslin is a cotton weave fabric, which holds dyes and paints easily. Usually muslin backgrounds are clamped to a background stand. For transport to a photo shoot, muslin is typically stuffed in a bag (the wrinkles from this are not considered a problem). Muslin is also available in systems that pop open into a circular 6’ backdrop. These can be snapped back into a smaller circle for transport (try Calumet Photographic).
Muslin is relatively inexpensive and very portable. In a studio photographers typically use welders or photographer clamps to hang the backdrop from a stand.
Oddly enough the hardest thing to find in muslin is a solid color. Most vendors sell muslin in old master patterns (old master styles have a lighter color “hot spot” in the center and progressively darker colors as you move from the center), abstract patterns or marbleized patterns. Marbleized patterns look like a marble wall with veins of lighter color through a solid color.
In the case of marbleized or patterned backdrop, the portrait photographer may want to hang the backdrop and see that the pattern won’t inconveniently cross through the head of a subject. This is especially true of marbleized or striped patterns.
Typical useful sizes of backgrounds are 9’ x 12’ or 12’ x 20’. The costs vary but range from $120-300.
Before muslins, there were canvases. Unlike muslin, canvas is a heavy fabric. Canvas backgrounds are usually painted, frequently in old master, or scenic realism. Also called “Roll Drops” or “Scenics” (muslins also can be called scenics), canvas backgrounds do need a suspension system. A motorized backdrop stand is the usual means, but there are background rollers that mount to the ceilings of larger studios. Expect to pay much more for a ceiling system (maybe $1200- 1300). The benefits of a ceiling system include less equipment underfoot. Ceiling systems, especially with light rail systems for lights clear the floor space for little things like models, sets, and the photographer.
Canvas also includes some oddities borrowed from the Theatrical world. Cut Drops, which are hard to find in USA for photography, are partial backdrops. Typically the cut drop is painted as an archway , with the opening cut out so that a person can stand below it. Trees, Architectural details, and abstract patterns can be cut out.
Partial backdrops are similar to the cut drop. A partial backdrop is not meant to fully cover a set. It might detail a vertical column, wall or doorway. Another use of a partial backdrop is a scene behind a window.
Special Effects Backgrounds
Chromakey backdrops are the commonest special effect backgrounds. Most commonly known as the background that the weatherman stands in front of, chromakey or “key” backgrounds are set to perfect blue or green to allow a video trick to be played. The videographer can superimpose a second image over the first and only the chromakey color section will show (think weather map behind the weather man).
Translucent backgrounds are backgrounds for photography or videography that “disappear” under the right lighting. This allows objects or people behind the backdrop to “appear”. Since you can control what is seen and what is not seen, the effects can be magical. The effect is borrowed from theatrical scrim effects. To see details and diagrams of how to achieve these effects please refer to Scrim Effects a how-to on the topic.
Translucent backgrounds can be illusion netting, gauzes, scrims (Studio Productions manufactures a special textural scrim). Depending on the fabric the scrim can be transparent or translucent; diffusive or non diffusive. Translucent fabrics tend to be easily draped, or hung as panels. Typically, clamps are used to suspend them from backdrop stands, but they also can be hung from rings suspended above a subject.
(The picture above shows how lighting makes a gray translucent look blue. The wall behind the backdrops is lit with blue gelled lights.)
Translucents come in many colors, and even if you choose a color the translucent has the benefit of being very changeable due to lighting. A gray can look blue with a few light tricks.
(The picture above shows layering. A gray translucent over a brown translucent)
The “gotchas” with translucents include that only non-wovens can be layered or a nasty interference pattern results, most translucent fabrics bought at fabric stores come in narrow widths. Most are not heavy duty. So look for at least 12’ wide, non-woven scrims.
Reflective fabrics are available. The most common is mylar. The effect achieved is memorable, but not very versatile. Clearly the backdrop competes with the subject and lighting has to be careful.
Consider some variety fabrics, like burlap, lace, light and heavy drapery materials. The velvets absorb light best if light absorption is a goal.
Non-fabric backdrop ideas from mild to wild
Product cycloramas are typically plaster walls that are curved where the wall meets the floor. Similar temporary things can be done with fabric or paper.
Decorative corrugated cardboard comes in 3” rolls. This is borrowed from the visual merchandising world (to find try Sam Flax of NY).
Corrugated roofing panels. Translucent roof panels can be lit from behind. Other metallic and plastic can be lit across the ridges.
Save a used roll of backdrop paper and purposely scrunch it up, then unfold it. And hang it. Try accordion folding it too.
Trellis materials from a garden store
Plaster textured walls
Shadow projections on walls or on a fabricc. Let your clever lighting paint a backdrop.
Floors--consider a ladder shot from above
Interesting antique rugs can be hung on walls.
Fishnet, in various colors.
Wallpaper. Wallpaper can be mounted on a variety of surfaces, permanent or temporary.
Japanese Paper(typically available in small sizes—try Kate’s Paperie in NYC)
Get More for Your Backdrop Dollar...
You can get more varieties of shots with some creativity. An existing canvas, paper or muslin backdrop can have a translucent background layered over it for a different look. A gobo (cut out) window could be projected on a backdrop and a curtain hung in front of it: Instant window.
(The picture above shows a gobo effect. The shadows of the leaves across the backdrop make the effect complete.)
Gobos (short for go-betweens) can be fashioned out of foil or bought pre-made. Gobos project shadows patterns or gelled light patterns onto solid objects, walls, backdrops or people. You’ll remember this technique heavily used in classic black and white movies and classic photography from the golden age.
The old Victorian decorating techniques of drape, drape and drape are useful for many things.