Photographer Robert Mitchell (see bio below) came up with a clever solution for creating an almost infinite amount of backgrounds using nothing more than a wall and a bucket of paint. While painting and repainting takes some time, the results definitely justify the effort.
Every photographer that builds a studio or converts a room for use as a photo studio gives thought to backgrounds and backdrops. Seamless paper is available in a few widths and a multitude of colors but it’s not always interesting or appropriate and depending on what you’re shooting, seamless can be boring and ugly. The paper itself doesn’t cost that much and you can rig things to hold a roll without any serious investment in hardware, and for some, this is more than enough, and everything they need.
If you’ve determined that you want something more interesting than colored seamless then the next most common choice seems to be canvas, muslin and assorted fabric backgrounds. There are so many choices and they can work quite well, but I always found them to be boring once I used them a few times and I didn’t want my work to always have the same look when I shot in the studio. Some of the hand painted backgrounds I’ve seen are really beautiful and can be used in many ways so as not to be so boring but they carry a hefty price tag.
If you’re the kind of person that enjoys DIY then you can always try to create some hand painted fabric backgrounds. Painting canvas didn’t agree with me in so many ways.
Creating backgrounds in post production is also an option with limitless possibilities although it would never be my first choice.
I chose to go in a slightly different direction.
In my studio, I wanted to have one shooting area that I could change easily with very little expense. The solution was to designate a portion of one wall in the studio that I paint and repaint, making it whatever I want or need and once I’ve shot with it a few times I just change it. For me, a hard surface is much easier to work with than a flexible piece of canvas and ultimately, repainting canvas wouldn’t hold up as well as the wall and would be cumbersome to roll, fold and store.
Not only does my painted wall give me the variety and change that I like but it costs very little to create and almost nothing to change. The wall I’m using is 8 feet high and 6 feet wide. The tools and materials needed are minimal. I bought a few cheap 2 inch and 3 inch brushes, a sea sponge, 1 gallon of glaze and 1 gallon of flat white paint. This gives me everything I need except for the color, and to color or change it, I use 2 of those little paint samples you can get at most paint and home centers and that costs me $6. Every so often I’ll need a third sampler and that brings the cost of change to $9. The other paint and glaze go a very long way and are used to alter a color or to create some form of faux finish using glaze. After a year or so of doing this, I have yet to need more white paint or glaze.
It took me a while to get good at knowing what would look good and how to light it, but now I change it every week or two and I love the results.
Since I do a lot of work against the wall and use it as a prop, I can’t create visual effects behind my subject, and so, for my work, the background must be physically changed rather than just using gels or projected patterns and lighting effects. It’s actually quite a bit of fun and I’ve learned a lot of interesting painting and faux finish techniques. I learned by doing and by experimenting.
Everyone does what makes the most sense for them based on budget, creativity and type of work they shoot. The only thing that makes one solution better than another is if it’s better for you. What works for one person may not work for another.
This is a sampling of images shot using my hand painted wall. I’ve gone from soft pastels to gritty and edgy textures. Mix that with lighting and visual effects and I have a far more flexible shooting zone than I would with one or even a few fabric backgrounds or colored seamless paper.
Robert Mitchell is a New York based photographer and instructor specializing in contemporary portraits and headshots photography. You can follow Robert on Facebook, Twitter and his blog. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.
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