Intro white background

Get a white background in your studio.

Often a photo taken in a studio shows a white background. It's something you can achieve afterwards in Photoshop but you can save yourself a lot of time by getting a white background in your original photos. It's not that difficult just a matter of some knowledge and the right stuff.

Sometimes you'll see photos where the background is a bit gray, not a nice evenly white. And that's what I'm going to explain; how to get it right. Of course you can do it in post, but a good photo starts with a good original. Do it in your studio and it won't cost you ten minutes. If you have to correct eighty photos in post, you do the math.


The theory
Set your frame
Setting up your light

The theory

Just some boring theory. He, it's needed.
Light is just like my patience; it has an end. Light spreads out and loses power. When you have a lightsource it radiates light at a certain power. For instance, take a lightbulb. You probably had them at home. Nowadays you'll have changed them with nice eco-friendly-power-saving lightsources. At three feet the light has a certain power. If you double the distance, to six feet, the power will go down. And I even know how much if you double the distance, the light will decrease in half. It's a logarithmic scale. When the distance doubles up, the power decreases by half. When the distance is four times as big, the power of the light is a quarter. The half of the original half is a quarter.
If I take a lightmeter and measure the power at three feet; it would for instance say 1/100 at f/4.0. At 12 feet it would read 1/25 at f4/.0. Get it? Yes, fine. No, don't worry. Just keep in mind that the power of light decreases when the distance increase. I'll remind you when it's time.

Let me remind you on the story I told earlier. He, isn't that fast?
Why is it important? Just to prevent to make a mistake that's easily made by novice photographers. You often see that people try to light a model and get the background white with the same light. That doesn't work. Not now, not ever. It's that simple. When you use one flash for your model, you can correctly light your model. But the light that passes your model doesn't have the power to put enough light on the background to make it white.

What's needed for a white background? Light, lots of light. More light than thats needed on your model. You won't make it with a single flash that you use to light your model. It's important to separate the light on your model and the light on your background. Photographing is a bit of a manly matter; you can't do two things at the same time. It's one thing or something else. With a single flash you can create a white background or you can light your model. You can't do both.

So you understand you'll need more than a single flash. Two? Could be possible. It doesn't leave much room to play around but it's possible. When you put one flash on your model you could use the other flash for your background. But you want an even spread of white in your background. you don't want one corner pure white and the opposite corner a dirty gray. No, everything needs to be right and white in the background.
Two flashes is the basic minimum for your background. When you have a small background you could say one is enough. But most of the time you need at least two.

Alright, I'm running out the longer pieces of text. It's about time to say goodbye to the theory and dive into the studio. I could write on and on but it's better to see how it works in practice:

A white paper background in the studio

This is a piece of paper as most studiophotographers know. These rolls come in more colors than the rainbow and I think it's hard not to find something you like. In this article I restrict it to white. It's about creating a white background.

This piece of paper is around 8 feet wide. From ground to ceiling it's around 10 feet. That's 80 square feet of white background. Do I have to light this complete background?
No, only the piece I need. And a little bit extra

That extra piece is to be on the safe side when you lean over to much. You can light your complete background but you'll need some power to do that. You probably won't make it with two studio-flashes. Besides, it's easier to do when your surface isn't that big. For a big surface you might need four or six studio-flashes. And when you don't use the complete background it's a bit overkill. It's not only a waste of your time to set up an evenly lit background that big when you use just a small part. And I think photographers prefer the easy way, because you get tired of thinking and working hard.

So, first thing is to decide what piece of the background you're going to use. For this you'll need to create a sort of frame. A pencil can help you with it.

Set up a frame

To determine the frame of your background, you need to look at a few things in advance. First; where will you and the model stand. Also you have to think about the photo you have in mind. In this article I make half-body-shots of the model. From hip up to the head. That's about from the floor three feet up to about seven feet. Including some margin. For my background; everything under three feet doesn't have to be white. Same for above seven feet. Things outside this region are probably not in your photo. But it's a height of 4 feet. Including the margin that's outside my photo.

A frame set on the white background in the studio

I prefer square frames on my backgrounds. A camera has a ratio of 3:2 or 4:3. But when you use a square (1:1) you have the ability to turn your camera without shooting outside your white frame. Portrait or landscape-mode doesn't make a difference, you don't have to change any lights when you decide to turn your camera. It would be a waste of time if you did. Your model doesn't want to wait for it. The latter is also a thing to set up your background lights when your model hasn't arrived or is in make up.

The height of my frame is 4 feet. So will be the width. With a small pencil I mark the 4 corners of the frame. Why? That way I can see where the boundaries of my frame will be. I use pencil because I can erase it pretty easy and a small pencil-dot will be blown away by the flashes. A marker is permanent and changes are it will be visible.
But with a drawn frame I have the possibility to measure at the corners. What if I turn around and get some coffee? If I come back, I'm sure I don't know where my corners were.

Now you've set your frame. In the photo I connected the dots with red lines so it's better to see. That square will be the background in my photos. Top left has to be the same white as the center.

Setting up your light

Now it's time to spread my light on the background. The square is small enough to use two lights. And what do I expect from my lights? I want my light to be evenly spread on the background and I want to be the one who decides where my light hits the background. The modifier I choose on my lights will be barndoors or a normal reflector. No softboxes or umbrella's. Why not?
Because I need a lot of light on my background. A softbox is, most of the time, huge and consumes a lot of light. I lose a lot of light when I use a softbox. All that light that's lost won't hit my background and I need to compensate it with a lot of power. And why no umbrellas? Because I want to aim my lights. An umbrella let's you put a lot of light through it. But there is also a bit of light that shoots back to you. You don't want that. Besides that, the light that goes through is also way to spreaded.
That's why you choose barndoors or a normal reflector; you can aim a lot better.

In this article I use a normal reflector without barndoors. It's the reflector provided with my lights and why should I spend money on barndoors (I do have them tough)
I want my light on the left and right side with the same strength. In the bottom and upper part also. In the whole frame. The setup between bottom and upper part is the easiest.
The reflector is round so the spread of light will be even. If I set up my flash horizontal the spread to the lower part of the frame is the same as the upper part. My frame was 4 feet high and the flash needs to be in the middle of it. My frame started at 3 feet from the ground. So the height of my flash needs to be: 4 / 2 = 2 + 3 = 5 feet. So my lights need to be horizontal at a height of around 5 feet.

That's the easy part. Now I have to make sure it's equal on the left and right part of the frame.
I can't put the lights straight in front of the background. That way they will show up in the photo. It would take some extra time in post-processing and the purpose is to spend less time in post. You put them outside your frame and you let them light the background at an angle.
The light at your left side is angled to the right side of your frame and the light on the right to the left side. That way you'll have two circles that combined will fill the complete frame with even lighting. You can put a first view with the modellinglights of your lights. It's not a real reference, that's not what the lights are for. If you don't let the lights cross each other you will face the problem that the middle of the frame catches to much light. making them cross each other gives a better spread. Let me show you with an example:

Two flashes near a white background in the studio

It's important that both flashes are symmetrical. The distance to the background has to be the same. You want to keep left and right the same. In the beginning I told you that light loses power if the distance increases. So that's why you have the distance from both lights to the background the same. You can imagine if one flash is further away that on that side you'll make the background less light.

Now you have a global setup. It's your base. If the angle of the lights compared to the background is right, I don't know. Same goes for the distance. They might need to be closer, or further away. Who knows? I will in a few minutes.

Because I own a lightmeter. If you want to set up your white background quick and accurate; you're going to need one.

The setup in the photo above gives me a starting point. From here I can start finetuning. I know, the way things stand now, it's probably pretty alright. It has to be because a) the lights are at the right and the same height. b) they are equal spread to left and right. And c) they cross each other. Now I have to make sure the corners and the center is the same.

And how white does it have to be? Whiter than white? Nope, that's too much. But it is important that you know a little bit about settings of photography in general.
For starters, there needs to be a balance between the light on your background and on your model. The background needs more light than the model. It is a studio so we are going to talk about apertures here. When I want to take photos of my model at f/5.6, I can't make my background the same f/5.6. That way it won't be white. To get it white you need to overexpose the background.
By two stops that is. (A stop is a definition double or half the light) A single stop would bring us to f/8.0 and when you add another stop it will be f/11.0. My background has to be lit at f/11.0 and then it's two stops lighter than my model. If you decide to shoot your model at f/8.0 you have to make sure your background is at f/16.0. But keep in mind, you need more power to get to f/16.0 than you need for f/11.0.

Why f/11.0 and not turn the flashes all the way up? It's something you can think about. The background would be so white you don't have to fidle around. yes, in theory it would work. In practice not. The light will also be reflected by your background.
It will hit back on your model and the last thing you want is light hitting your model that you didn't set up for that purpose. That's why you don't use umbrellas for the background and thats why you separate the lights between model and background instead of hitting it with everything you have. Again; a good original photo saves up a lot of editing time.

So, the setup is pretty good and I know I want to have the lights at f/11.0. With my lightmeter I can measure what I've got. I put it in a corner and trigger the light on the other side. It's best to shut down the other light. If you work with one flash at a time you get a better control. So when you let your light on the right flash, you will measure things on your left side. Adjust power accordingly so that you reach f/11.0 at the corner where you put your pencil mark. Also measure at the bottom if you have f/11.0. If there is a difference, let's say f/11.5 at the top and f/10.8 at the bottom, it means that there is to much light at the top. You have to point your light a little bit more downwards to make sure it's equal f/11.0.

If one light is good, you'll do the other. Don't forget to turn of the first flash. You also want to control this flash very precise.
When both lights are setup correct, so all four corners are the same, you gained yet another step. You can turn both lights on now.
If you measure your corners again, they should still be f/11.0 if you did it right. Probably not, because you mix the two lights together now. Also, measure the center of the frame. If this is way above f/11.0 that means your circles of light are too close. Make the angle more tilted by turning the lights away from the background. It's also a little bit playing around. You have to get a bit of experience and feeling.

In the end, most of the time, when your four corners are correct and your lights are set up crossed, nine out of ten times you're ready. It depends on the size of your frame. A bigger frame can have a higher value in the center compared to the corners. A difference of half stop is acceptable but not more.
Just make sure, for a white background you'll need at least two stops difference, no less. So if you light your model at f/5.6 you will need f/11.0 on your background. Anything less won't result in a white background. If you are way over two stops you risk the change of reflecting light to the back of your model.

The setup of two flashes to create a white background

Can you do other things with this technique? Yes. If you have a blue background you can make it lightblue by overexposing the lights on the background. If you have a gray background you can get it white by simply overexpose more than two stops.

To finish up and show everything in a schedule:

Schematic that shows the setup in a studio to take photos with a white background

That will give you a photo like this one:

An example of a photo from the studio with a white background


White is contagious. If you shoot an afternoon on a white background you'll probably see a lot of footsteps on the what once was a virgin peace of paper. Of course you can cut it off. And every once in while you have to do so.

Best advice I can give when it concerns white backgrounds and footsteps or dirt; prevent, prevent, prevent. Your model wears her shoes; high heels or not, doesn't matter. It's your model, her shoes will show up in the photos. but everyone else; I let them take of their shoes or let them wear special socks you put over your shoes. It saves up my time in Photohsop.

But even then; you can't keep it 100% clean. Their can be little things or hairs and every once in a while something on your paper can be damaged. Don't worry; that's the point where you go for editing in post.

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