A couple of years ago I was having lunch with a fellow photographer and friend who asked, “How do you get your images to look so clean?” That was the start of what has turned out to be so many questions regarding backgrounds: how big they are, where to get them, storage, handling, lighting, post production.. the list goes on!
So let’s start at the beginning, based on the type of background, pros and cons, the challenges, and the tricks I’ve come up with for dealing with them.
There are 4 types of backgrounds I’ve found are the most common:
Muslin backgrounds are very common and can be sourced all over the place; photography stores, online, etc. You can get them custom printed to just about anything you want, but they are usually terrible to deal with in terms of wrinkles (unless you want that look). It is helpful to hang them a day or two before a shoot and have an intern steam out. To pull them tight (eliminating background rippling), I use A clamps to pull the material taut with stands or auto-poles. Beware, this material is cheap and often doesn’t pull straight without a fight (While paying $100 for a background is attractive, you get what you pay for.). Muslin backgrounds are, however, easy to store! They fold up nicely, making them easy to bag or to keep on a rack.
Canvas backgrounds are, in a word, awesome! But of course these often custom-made beauties come at a cost both in money and shear weight. My canvas backgrounds were made by Oliphant a family run company in Brooklyn that has been producing custom work for years for big names in the photography industry. These backgrounds last a really long time if you take care of them and “patina” beautifully. They are very heavy by comparison to muslin or paper, so you’ll need hearty stands or support systems. They are best tightly rolled and stood vertically when not in use. Mine are 12 ft wide, and I have them reversible for different floor options (We put one down for a floor and go up with one on the stands.), but you can get them in pretty much any shape and size you want.
Paper backgrounds come in 4 ft, 9 ft and 12 ft widths, although only whites, grey, black and chroma colors come in the 12 ft size. Papers are nice because they are quite inexpensive ($60 – $120/roll depending on size) and are easy to keep clean; just cut off the dirty floor area and roll out more! Savage is the company I like the best for its color palate as well as ease of getting the roll started. I have a lot of photographers ask me how big my papers are. This is only because when we use 9 ft’s we often have to extend the background sides in post production. Papers need to be rolled tightly and stored vertically, if you keep them on a bar horizontally you run the risk of the weight of the roll shifting towards flat on the down side. You’ll get horizontal ripples when you roll it out.
Some commercial photographers who do not re-use their papers cut small 2 inch slits down the sides of the paper where it lays on the ground. The idea behind this is to not have the paper ripple on the floor. I’ve had success with this on and off. Depending on how much humidity is in the air and how old the paper roll is, you can sometimes eliminate or lessen that ripple through that. Unfortunately, dancers move which means that more often than not we have to tape the sides of our paper down to avoid trips. Speaking of which, just a note, our preference in my studio for tape (we are tape snobs actually), is 2 inch blue painters tape. Gaff tape is too expensive for this purpose, and duck tape way to sticky.
How to get ride of ripples and bumps on the up-sweep of a paper you ask? A few things to try: 1) control your lights so that they don’t spill onto the background. 2) Actually light your background separately. By having light directed straight onto the background, you are filling in the shadows of the ripples. 3) Make sure that you have some distance between your dancer and the background. That will lessen the ripples through depth of field. 4) When you aren’t able to do it in camera, the preferred way, we move to post production! This is a totally separate blog post, but yes, we do often fine tune our backgrounds in post.
Cycloramas, also known as cyc’s or coves, are awesome if you have access to a commercial studio or shared space. I built into my studio a 22ft wide cyc with a sprung floor for the dancers. Quick side note: every other cyc I’ve seen in the last 20 years is a cement floor, be careful when dancers are wanting to jump. There is very little upkeep to a cyc if it’s done properly in the beginning except washing and painting. We paint with a odorless primer for speed of drying. Make sure you use the same paint every time, or you will run into problems with streaking. There are very few people that build cyc’s, but there are two companies that make pre-fab wall curves that you can have done and then use a contractor to help build out into your wall and floor. Beware of seams – the cracks between sheets of plywood need to be well contained so that they don’t start to surface as time goes on (This requires you to get an industrial sander to re-finish.).
Of course, these are the most common backgrounds I’ve personally encountered as a photographer but in general, having a sense of what’s out there and what purpose they serve, especially when shooting dancers, will help elevate your skill set. And as always, reach out with any questions you might have!