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Why does every photography studio have an area of white seamless background? The reason is pretty simple. A seamless white background is an industry standard because it’s so versatile.
It’s a neutral background for colors, making it an ideal choice for catalogs and compositing. With lighting, gels, or post-processing, you can make it almost any color you want. Yet that barren background still seems to stymie some photographers used to shooting on location.
High Key White Seamless Background
I got a lot of comments on the photos I showed in the previous post. Some thought it was quite a departure from my usual images, so I wanted to give some of what was going through my mind from the last photoshoot at Studio One.
Here’s how the studio looked behind the scenes.
That’s a friend of mine using my Elinchrom lights. My Deep Octa is a bit lower than I used it and he’s using another Elinchrom bare bulb to light the background to get a high-key look.
There’s really not much going on with the environment, though. It’s an empty space and you fill it with your imagination. So your photos on a white seamless background are as expressive as you can imagine or as dull as your imagination. That works as an advantage. The background isn’t competing for attention with your subject, which is why it’s perfect for so many catalog photoshoots. You’re not selling the environment. You’re selling a product.
While this is one way of working a high-key photo, I tend to use a different approach. Here’s an example of my high-key setup.
We were thinking of something operatic for this shot, but that’s beside the point.
On either side of the white seamless background are two V-flats. My Elinchrom lights are behind them, flashing at the wall. There’s no foreground light in this shot, everything is just a wash coming from the backlight. You have to move your subject away from the back wall to get out of the nuclear lighting zone.
The reason for using white V-flats is twofold. First, it prevents flare from coming back into my lens. Second, it gives a nice, soft side-light for my subject. Once that’s in place, I can make some decisions.
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If I want a silhouette, I can expose for the background and let my subject remain unlit.
For a catalog shot, you would add your key light to the foreground and come up with something like the next photo.
This is how it looks out of camera with my setup on an older shoot. Had I been using a tethered system at the time, I could have corrected for the color cast on the left side. In this case, it only took a quick Curves adjustment to clean it up for the final shot.
That’s the beauty of shooting tethered, though. I would have had a larger image and more information to make a slight adjustment on the set to get it perfect in camera.
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The truth is that I’m just not that satisfied with this kind of high-key image, though. It’s useful and serves a purpose. When my friend Niki came to me and said she needed a portrait on a white background for a book, I knew how to do it. It’s a functional setup.
You can also make it more of an artistic setup. Take a look at the Beauty/Portrait portfolio of Joel Grimes and you’ll see some very artistic high-key photos. He demonstrates this technique on a Kelby Training (now KelbyOne) class using very large shoot-through umbrellas on both sides and a large source for his key light.
I’m tempted to try the same look using my white V-Flats as reflectors on both sides, but that’s for another day. Ultimately, you can be functional or artistic with high key images on a white seamless background.
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White is the New Black
Funny thing about a white seamless background. It’s only white if you light it. You can see that in the photos above, but as shown below, white can also be black. Here’s my first test shot from the last studio visit.
That’s a photo of the same white seamless background as in my iPhone shot at the top of this article, shot in the ambient light of the studio. Why is it black? There just isn’t enough ambient light in my exposure settings to show anything. I’m literally starting with a blank canvas and I have to add light. Here’s my exposure.
I didn’t want a high-key look, so I placed my key light to the side of the studio. I wasn’t using a grid or flagging the light, so some of it still spilled onto the background. Instead of a glaring high-key white background, I ended up with a muted grey background, as you can see in this shot.
Instead of lighting everything, I wanted a darker image. I wanted shadows. Like many photographers before me, I’m learning that I like photos more when you don’t light everything in them.
I also like them better without dust spots, so the shot needed some cleanup in post processing. While I was there, I decided to add a bit of color to the image.
My plan for this photoshoot was to create a series of portraits where I varied the background color. As I mentioned, shooting with gels over the lights is one way to get there, but I decided that I had a greater choice over the background color range in post-processing than I did with my gels.
Shooting on a grey background also makes selection much easier to extract the subject for a composite image.
Working On Imagination
I’m discovering that I can imagine all sorts of things. The part that usually holds me back is gathering the materials I need to make my imagination come to life: wardrobe, willing subjects, and interesting background images.
Others are far better at making these things happen, which gives me hope. I know that none of my obstacles are insurmountable. I have to work through them a step at a time.
When it comes to shooting on a white seamless background, your imagination is really the key ingredient.