Getting that perfect shot can mean creating a beautiful work of art. Likewise, setting up a bad shot can be devastating to your end result. There is so much that goes into setting up the ideal photograph; lighting, set and scene, and even background can all have a major impact on how your images turn out. Choosing the wrong colors, patterns, or background type can throw off lighting and wash out your photos. Use this handy guide to find your way through the various types of backgrounds, from Lastolite collapsible backgrounds to muslin and cotton fabric.
These lightweight backgrounds are often the photographer’s best friend, as they can be stowed away in a backpack or the trunk of a car quite easily. They come in a variety of styles and colors, with most being chromatic or comprised of simple patterns. Collapsible backgrounds also make an excellent way to throw in a green screen for later editing in Photoshop or other image software. They are generally made with a collapsible steel or metal frame, and are covered in a thin material to take up as little space as possible. Most collapsible backgrounds measure in excess of 7 feet in each direction, but size does vary. Because these backgrounds are meant to be transportable, they can be a poor choice in bad weather, high winds, or rain.
One of the original background types, canvas has some special abilities that aren’t found in other background types. Firstly, a good heavy canvas can withstand a bit of wind and rain–although water will soak it if it hasn’t been primed or sealed. Secondly, you can paint your own designs directly on it, create collages on it, or used mixed media to create just about any scene you like. It’s an easy way to create a fantasy-like backgrounds without spending a small fortune on solid versions. Because it remains slightly moldable and typically comes on a roll, it can be extended down beyond the floor and rolled out in front of the scene to create the illusion of a white floor. This is ideal for macros.
While it’s also great for the photographer in a hurry, simply using a good heavy sheet of fabric like muslin can be a great way to create a background on the fly. White sheets of fabric are very popular, and if hung wrinkle-free, can act as a more affordable sheet of canvas. It’s also possible to take a basic cotton sheet and turn it into a canvas, if you have a bit of time on your hands.
Fabric is also far more customizable; because it can be purchased in yards, you can buy as much or as little of the pattern or style as you like. If buying solid color sheeting outside of white, it is crucial that you buy what you need at the same time, or purchase from the same color lot. Small differences in dyes can result in lots being slightly off-color, ruining the potential for them to be used together in the future.
This non-woven material is perfect for creating a fantasy or glamor feel. It is sometimes used alone, and other times used in combination with fabric or canvas backgrounds. Fantasy cloth has a texture that is similar to tulle or netting, but is usually quite a bit softer, allowing it to be draped and molded. Despite its ability to be draped, it does retain some of its shape when placed. It is a frequent prop in wedding pictures and baby pictures, as white fantasy cloth gives an ethereal feel.
Vinyl isn’t usually a popular choice for hobbyists, simply because it is expensive and requires the use of a stand in order to have it lay properly. Despite this, it is worth considering if you need to create mock floors or walls. It can be sliced up and laid down against false walls, too, creating rooms and any number of designs for your shoot. Photography studios sometimes use vinyl backing within their shooting room to create the illusion of an outdoor scene or living room. Because it’s possible to print right on vinyl, it comes in a plethora of colors and can be purchased in sizes ranging up to 20 feet square. Whichever size is chosen, a seamless option should be used.