This digital age is an amazing time for photographers, with many avenues of creative expression available. However, there are also some traditional methods that are worth knowing and exploring. Photography backdrops are a powerful way to augment and enhance both portrait and product shots.
While many photographers are using chroma-key green screens and dropping in their background images digitally, using traditional muslin, canvas or seamless paper backdrops can bring a special hands-on warmth and depth to portraits and product work. Here is an overview of the basic backdrop styles and types:
Smooth and Timeless Canvas
Artist’s canvas is one of the most traditional and time-honored materials used in photography backdrops. It is heavy, durable and stored rolled to maintain its smooth surface. It is stretched, primed, then painted with matte paints to help ensure a non-glare surface, and a variety of effects can be achieved. From “old master” style vignettes that mimic a Michelangelo or Da Vinci sky to scenic landscape looks, a canvas backdrop can be a great investment for a portrait studio. The main downsides of canvas are its heavy weight and relatively high cost.
Seamless paper offers a smooth, consistent surface when a solid color or gradated look is needed. It is ideal for product photography, but can also be used for model and actor head shots and a more contemporary look in portrait photography. Seamless paper is also disposable and quite affordable; when a sheet of it becomes scuffed or torn, simply tear it off and unroll another section of paper.
Muslin is another traditional backdrop material that photographers have used for generations. It is by nature somewhat “crinkled” in its look, and many photographers enjoy the depth that this offers. Muslin backdrops can be easily draped, bunched or hung artfully for a number of attractive and artistic looks. It can also be ironed flat if desired to emulate the more smooth, consistent look of canvas or seamless paper.
Muslin comes in just about any style and color scheme you can imagine. It is most often dyed with fabric dyes to achieve a range of blended, modeled looks, but muslin can also be painted by a backdrop artist to emulate some of the brushwork and vignetting of a canvas backdrop.
Building Your Photography Backdrop Collection
When getting started with using backdrops in portrait photography, muslin is an affordable and educational way to do so. If budget allows, start with one modeled brown and one gray style to allow for maximum versatility. Add a blue backdrop to your repertoire as well if/when your budget allows.
Black and white are great options for getting started with seamless paper and can offer excellent backdrop options for product as well as artistic portrait work with maximum contrast. Medium or warm gray is another good option for seamless paper, and some gradated options can help set off a range of products and subjects for pleasing visual effects.
The Classic Old Master Vignette
If you wish to invest in a canvas backdrop, consider a classic old master vignette. This style is characterized by a dark brown outer edge that gradually gets lighter and warmer toward the target area or “hot spot” of the backdrop. Additional colors like blue, rust and cream are often subtly blended in for a beautiful cloudy or lightly textured effect.
With so many digital options and innovations available to photographers today, it can be easy to lose sight of some of the time-honored traditional methods available to you. Use these tips for getting the most out of fabric and paper photography backdrops, and consider augmenting your explorations with some related online photography classes or tutorials.