Regardless of whether you are shooting portraits, products, food, fashion, pets, or any of the countless other subjects that find their way in front of your lens, eventually you’re going to be faced with the prospect of clean lines or high contrast against a solid background. While shooting high-key against a white backdrop obviously poses different lighting challenges than let’s say shooting a dramatic portrait against a black background, there are certain aspects that are common to both, regardless of the color of the paper. It’s what all of this paper has in common that we’re going to take a closer look at today.
The Best Size for the Job
Just like we carefully select the lights, modifiers, and lenses for a particular assignment, it’s also important to select the right size roll of background paper. Among the popular sizes and their appropriate uses are:
26 in. x 36 ft While this is a great size for tabletop photography, I have to confess that I’m not a huge fan of using seamless paper for product photography. While it creates the right look, I find the roll itself to be too heavy and unwieldy for tabletop shooting. If you are working in close quarters with limited space, I suggest using foam board or poster board to create the same effect. If you have a little more space and you’re reasonably good with your hands, give this DIY Photography Folding Table a try.
53 in. x 36 ft. 53 inches basically gives you a working width of under 4.5 feet. As such, it’s well-suited for headshots, 3/4 length portraits, and kids portraits. You have to be very careful about not shooting off the background, but the right subject can be photographed extremely well on a background this size.
107 in. x 36 ft. This size gives you almost nine full feet of working background width. With this size you’ll have absolutely no trouble photographing full-body portraits, small groups, and anything in between.
107 in. x 150 ft. 150 feet!?! Yes– 150 feet. I know it sounds absolutely huge, and if you don’t have proper storage for it it certainly can be the massive beast in the room. But it can also be a great size to have on hand if you do a lot of shooting on seamless.
You have a lot of options when it comes to setting up a seamless backdrop– some better or more reliable than others. I’ve seen everything from elaborate backdrop and crossbar systems where the roll hangs from the top (good), to jerry-rigged systems where the roll stays on the floor and the loose end is pulled up and tacked to the wall (bad..really bad). Check out this DIY Photography article on creating your own wall-mounted support system for just a few dollars.
One of these days, my dream studio will have one of these triple-roll drive systems, but for now, my favorite set-up is a backdrop stand. Mine is made up of two heavy-duty, 13′ light stands and an adjustable-length crossbar. The adjustable length is crucial if you are going to be using different widths of paper. Remember– unlike cloth backdrops, the crossbar has to actually be at least as wide as the roll of paper– preferably not too much wider. Once the roll has been placed on the crossbar and raised to the proper height, pull the end of the paper down to at least floor level. You can stop there if you are doing head shots or 3/4 portraits. If you are shooting full-length, you obviously need to pull down enough to give your subject plenty of room.
Keeping it Safe
Not to sound too much like the voice of reason, but it is hugely important to put safety first. These rolls of paper can be pretty heavy and the very last thing you or your lawyer want is for one of them to come falling down on your subject. Same goes for someone slipping on the floor section of the paper. As far as the roll itself goes, start by making sure the cross bar is properly and securely attached to whatever system you are using. Once the appropriate amount of paper has been unrolled, use a clamp on each end to keep the paper from unrolling any further. Using a few strips of gaffers tape, secure the edges of the paper to the floor. This will prevent the edges from curling up, and it will also keep the paper from sliding on the floor. Make sure you’ve selected an area of floor that is smooth, even, and damage-free. You may know there’s a crack in the floor under the paper, but chances are that your subject doesn’t.
Don’t Forget the Sweep
One of the most horrifying sights I’ve ever experienced was when I watched an assistant unroll a white seamless backdrop and…wait for it…crease it where it hit the floor! The lesson I learned that day was that when someone tells me they already know how to do something, my answer to them is, “prove it.” One of the main goals for shooting on seamless is to avoid lines and marks. Allowing the paper to gently curve– or sweep– towards you when it hits the floor (and properly lighting it) is the first step towards achieving that goal. It’s clean. It’s pleasing to the eye. There are no distractions. It’s…seamless. Taping the edges down is also a big help in maintaining the shape of the sweep.
Give it Some Shine
You don’t necessarily need a full-blown reflection, but giving the floor enough shine to give off even just a hint of reflection can add a nice extra dimension to your photos. A sheet of plexiglass over the floor is a quick and easy way to add the shine. Storing a piece of plexiglass that large can be a bit of a challenge, but I highly recommend it if you have the space.
Speaking of Storage…
Remember, these are long, heavy rolls, so proper storage is a must if you want to maintain the clean, crease-free quality of the paper. Keeping the rolls stored on the background stand is okay for relatively brief periods of time, but vertical storage will be better for the roll over the long-term. If kept horizontal for too long, the roll will eventually begin to bow in the middle, making it very difficult to work with. Vertical storage systems are available (or DIYed), but keep in mind that you’re going to need quite a bit of wall space to accommodate longer rolls. Whatever you do, do not just lean it up against a corner. If you only have one or two rolls and don’t have the space for a storage system, try using an appropriate length and diameter of PVC pipe. The PVC pipe is also a great way to transport the roll if you ever need to shoot with it at another location.
Keeping it Clean
The simple answer here is that you don’t. If you were interested in washing and maintaining your all-white backdrop you’d be running cloth through a washing machine or getting down on your hands and knees with vinyl cleaner. The beauty of paper is that you trim away the dirty sections and unroll some more. When it’s time to trim, use a box cutter instead of scissors. You may not be able to cut a perfectly straight line for eight feet, but it will definitely be better than the jagged edge you’ll get from the scissors.
Now All You Have to Do is Light It
But that, my friends, is a post for another day.