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Shooting with a White Background

I often hear questions about how to shoot with a white background.  The first time someone tries it, they will typically get a nice white spot somewhere, and a gradual fade to gray as you move away from the spot.  Then, they spend a bunch of time in Photoshop making it pure white as they originally intended.

I typically spend extra time trying to get things right in the camera, so I don’t have to fix them later in Photoshop.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the bottom line is I want to reduce the total time per-image I have to spend in post processing.  I sit in front of a computer screen just plenty, thank you, so if I can do something in the studio to reduce it, count me in!

So let me try to talk a bit about one way to get a nice, all-white background, without Photoshop.

Waist up

If you only need to shoot head and shoulders, or perhaps even down to the waist, you might be able to get away with a single light on the background. Maybe not, but it’s at least possible.  But I’m going to assume you have two lights for the background, and go from there.

This is easier than full length, because there’s a limited amount of backdrop visible behind the model. So really, you only need to light that part evenly.

I typically use two medium-sized softboxes, one to each side of the background paper, each pointing about 1/3 of the way in from the edge.  Meter them together, so the whole area behind the model meters within +/- 0.2 stops or so.  And overall, you’re looking for about +1 stop brighter than you’re going to use for your key light.  More than that, you’ll most likely run into a lot of spill and flare problems; less than that, you’ll have problems getting your background to look pure white.

And you don’t have to use softboxes on the background here – just pick something that allows you to get even coverage across the part of the background that shows behind the model.

Full length

This one is tougher – to shoot full-length, and get a perfect white background, everything has to come together just so – because there is a LOT of background you have to light.

I start with the same two medium softboxes pointing towards the white seamless background; if you have more lights, 4 heads is even better.  I start with the boxes about 5 feet high, pointing in about 1/3 of the way on the background.  Then start metering again all across the background – top to bottom, left to right, and keep adjusting things until you get it pretty even (as before, ideally you want this +/- 0.2 stops).

Now, you have the problem of the floor the model is standing on.  This is a tough spot to light.  What I typically do is place a large sheet of plexiglass material (white or clear works) on top of the white paper you’ve pulled out.  This plastic sheet will actually reflect the light hitting the background, and once you get things adjusted right, will seamlessly blend into the background.

The tough spot with all of that is the back edge of the plexiglass; you’ll sometimes get a shadow there, which appears as a dark line going across the picture.  You can adjust the background lights a bit to compensate for this – try pointing them down a bit more.  Or…you can use a platform.

I usually use a platform that’s about 10 inches high.  I cover the platform with white seamless paper, and then put the plexiglass on top of it.  The model stands on top of all of this.  Once you do this, you effectively hide the part of the background that is most difficult to light (the part on the floor), and the plexiglass foreground reflects the background light…with no seam.

Note in the lighting diagram above I’m not showing the fill – just a main light and two background lights, with the platform.  (Many thanks to Kevin Kertz for the lighting diagram template!)

39 Responses to “Shooting with a White Background”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    This is an excellent post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    A. Howard

  2. Bryan Norfleet Says:

    Great stuff here.. I have a question about your plexiglass. What size do you use and where did ou get it from?

  3. gregr Says:

    Bryan – the ones I use are around 36×72 inches, from Home Depot. I’d actually prefer larger sheets (48×96), but they’re harder to find around here and they’re more difficult for me to transport.

  4. Bryan Norfleet Says:

    Thanks Greg. I live in Colorado Springs and have the same problem. Do you find yourself have to clone out the seams between the glass?

  5. gregr Says:

    Bryan – no…typically, I can get the lighting set up such that I don’t have to do any photoshop work on the floor/background. No real secrets, other than what I said in this post…

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you so much. I’m really struggling how to do this technique – I started by adjusting my 2 strobes until my histogram was flashing over exposed the whole background but I’m getting very washed out pictures.

    I guess the softboxes help to keep the ligtht more even so as not to need such hot settings?

  7. gregr Says:

    Anonymous – yes, you need some kind of modifier to help spread out the light; otherwise it will be uneven, and you’ll often end up turning up the power to compensate, which causes other problems. I use softboxes, umbrellas would also work fine.

  8. Jen Says:

    Where do you buy your platforms at? Does it also have to be the size of your plexiglass, 36×72 and where do you find the platform that size? Thanks, Jen

  9. gregr Says:

    Jen – the ones I usually use are homemade, I believe; the studio I normally shoot that style in has them standing up in the corner. :-) They don’t need to be exactly the size of your plexi – you’ll cover them with paper in any case, so as long as they’re at least as big as the plexiglass sheet (for safety), you don’t need to worry about it.

  10. Bella Says:

    Thanks for the info, I am really more interested in places (online and in CA) where you can find plexi for less…..any suggestions? I am looking for at least 4×6 feet.

  11. David Magahy Says:

    Greg

    Thanks heaps. I have been pulling my hair out for weeks with disinformation and misinformation from so called knowledgeable sources. All I wanted was an in-camera solution requiring minimum PS post.

    Yours works best so far. My trials refine or emphasize a few points. The more diffuse the background lighting then the better the chance of an even and consistent spread across the seamless but I feel the subject distance to lights and on to the backdrop is also important. Too short in either dimension and flare raises its ugly head. Not many sources have mentioned this. By my testing about 4 feet or more in front of the umbrellas or softboxes is good (more is better) and a further 6 feet or more to the backdrop (again more is better). Distance from the key to the subject is irrelevant excepting it’s effect on exposure and light modification characteristic. Would you agree with these conclusions.

    By the way my need is to shoot people in black suits (real estate uniforms).

    Thanks again and to Google for finding you,

    David

  12. gregr Says:

    David – I’d agree that distance between the subject and the background certainly helps; too close, and you potentially see flare as well as some effects of the background light wrapping around the subject.

    And also even light on the background is, as you say, quite important…I usually use medium softboxes, and I know others who use umbrellas. But this is just about light spread – you could probably use a bare strobe head if you could get it far enough away, and flag the subject from it…

  13. Photo Says:

    what is minimum distance between the subject and background? could 1,5 meters (about 5 foots) be enough??
    great post thank you Greg

  14. gregr Says:

    Photo – more is better, but you should be able to work with the 5 feet you have.

  15. Photo Says:

    Thanks, I am glad to here that!

  16. Dennis Says:

    This might be a stupid question. Are the lights hot lights or strobes (flashs). Thank you, Dennis

  17. gregr Says:

    Dennis – I use strobes, although you could do the same thing with hot lights if you wanted to…

  18. Exposure Says:

    Greg, great tips, tried them out & the results are smashing!! Typical guy thinking that more power is better, learned the hard way with needing to do a reshoot.

    Do you have any lighting tips on shooting on plexy/lexan? Small studio space, 9′ wide and around 12′ deep for model + my moving space, 2 octodome SB’s 650ws, one 900ws ST white umbrella, and small off camera hot shoe flash. Dark colors under lexan tips?

    At a loss.
    TIA

  19. Arthur Says:

    Thanks for the tips, i’ve been trying to figure out how to do a full bodied high key photo for a couple of days because I’ve just had a client request this type of shot and I’ve never done the full body before.

    Just one question before I go and invest in large sheets of plexiglass. I am worried about getting a big glare reflection rather than a nice even blown out white floor. This has never been a complication for anyone?

    Also I’ve had great luck keeping a nice even high key in my waist up shots by making a couple of v-flats by taping together two 4×8 foamcore sheets. I put two v-flats on either side of the background out of frame and I get nice even lighting across my background.

  20. Tiffany Says:

    Thank you! I am just starting with my studio, and these beautiful pictures are all over the internet with white seamless backgrounds. I have not been able to achieve these yet, but it seems I need to buy some plexiglass! We think the same in that I don’t like to spend forever in Photoshop trying to get what I invisioned. Thanks again.

  21. Jayne Says:

    Thanks for the great info! I have been searching for quite some time on how to get a nice reflective floor effective. I do have a question about the plexiglass…does it scratch easy? Is there some sort of hi-key paint you could use on the floor that would give you the same affect?

  22. gregr Says:

    Jayne – try using polycarbonate (such as Lexan) instead; it’s more resistant to cracking and a bit better about scratching. And yes – you could use just about anything that’s white and reflective on the floor…cruise around home depot and you’ll undoubtedly see some interesting options.

  23. Putting epoxy (or something similar) on a basement floor Says:

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  24. Petphotoman Says:

    I am a pet photographer and would like to use a white background for my shots. I’ve learned about the technical side – bg 2 stops brighter than subject etc. but how can I achieve good results in a limited space? I visit pet stores and dog training classes and I’m sometimes very cramped! I do head shots and full length so how can I set up the lights to achieve what I want with using too much PS afterwards? Would probably use white vinyl.

  25. John Says:

    Hi, great help! What would you recommend for light box size for background lighting full body shots? I’ve been running into nightmares trying to get even lighting.

    Thanks,

    John

  26. Asterix Says:

    Question: Floor lighting on White BG Full Length Portrait

    If you shoot a full length portrait on white BG getting the background light white is hard but can be done. However, I have a problem understanding how to make the floor the same even white as the BG.

    In order to minimize flare, to keep contrast and good exposure on the subject, standard procedure is to keep the model a fair distance away from the BG such that there is no light spill around the model, or at least to have the same meter reading at the back of the model’s head as in the front. Now, that can be done, however, the floor the model is standing on will be the same exposure then, which means that even if one uses Plexiglas on white seamless or glossy white tile boards to reflect the BG light, the floor will still show up darker than the background due to the 1 – 1.5 difference in f-stops (BG say at F/11.5, model and floor it stands on at F/8).

    How does one go around this issue? How can you make the floor the same white as the background without affecting the model as well? I would like to minimize post processing as much as possible, and right now, I can see how I could do this. Any help in this issue would be much appreciated!

    PS: bellow is a link to a description/pictures of my current setup from another post:
    http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1025&message=30788005

  27. gregr Says:

    Asterix: there are a few factors to think about. It doesn’t look like your subject is too far away from the background, so we’ll eliminate that.

    First, try moving your eye up and down, while watching the floor. You want to make sure the light from the background is really reflecting off the floor, up to the camera position.

    And second, I mentioned using a platform; you might try this. I’ve found it much easier, and more reliable, to have the model on a platform when shooting this sort of a setup; it eliminates the need to try to perfectly light your background all the way to the floor.

  28. Asterix Says:

    OK, I will try that. However, I do not understand how raising the floor (using a plaftorm) will help eliminate the level of light on it? I do not have a problem with the edge of the tile on the floor – that one blends perfectly such that I cannot find it in the final picture straight out of the camera.
    My issue is with the fact that the floor under and in front of the subject will not be the same ‘white’ as the background. Maybe raising the background lights and pointing them down a bit will help; or removing the curve at the bottom of the seamless such that the light reflected will point more towards the ground…

  29. gregr Says:

    Asterix: assuming your floor material is highly reflective (I didn’t catch what it is in your setup), then the angle of the camera to the floor, as compared to the incidence of background light on the floor, makes a difference. However, if you’ve moved your eye around and still aren’t seeing an adequate reflection, this might not be the problem.

    You might temporarily try removing your V-flats, or at least moving them further to the sides, and see if that makes a difference.

  30. Marsha Says:

    In my studio I have 2 lights above mounted to the ceiling just infront of my backdrops; then I have a softbox; I have another set of lights mounted on the ceiling just above where my camera is; plus a light that is mounted behind me as a fill light; PLUS a floor light. NOW When I take pictures on a white background my white looks gray and my subject 9/10 times is blown out also. My floor is a brown carpet. HELP

  31. gregr Says:

    Marsha: hard to tell from the description, but a few things jumped out at me.

    First, if your ceiling-mounted lights are very close to the backdrop, it’s going to be hard to get even lighting across the whole backdrop. You can probably prove this to yourself by checking all around the backdrop with a light meter.

    In the end, though, the key is to light the background and the subject separately. If you’re trying to light the background with ceiling lights at the camera position, say, you’ve got to ensure that they don’t light your subject. Once you have background and subject light separated, and you’ve lit the background evenly, then it’s just a matter of adjusting the overall lighting levels as described in the post.

    Hope that helps…

  32. D. Saunders Says:

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for this informative entry and all your guidance. I’ve previously done full-length on white in studio with 4×8 V-flats to block light from the subject but I’ve never tried plexi or tile board on the floor to keep it looking white. I’m eager to try that so it will look just right.

    Here’s my challenge – In several weeks I have to shoot full-length on white on location in a large conference center as well as full-body sitting in a chair against white. I’ve never had to drag this whole thing on-location before. The budget is for me and one assistant and we have to be able to use a couple of handcarts to bring things in. So I have to think carefully of only bringing what I need yet having everything I need. Luckily the white seamless will already be there.

    The point is that I can’t drag 4×8 flats, big plexi or big tileboard through their offices (I’d need a truck!) so I’m trying to figure out a way to modify materials and/or the set-up so as to still get good results. I’d appreciate any suggestions.

    To block the light from the subject I’m thinking to glue 3/16″ thick black to white foamcore in a size that I can clamp to stands (rather than use the 4×8 freestanding V-flats). Do you think that will block well enough? I could also use some Fotoflex PVC frames (see here: http://tinyurl.com/dywyr3) for this purpose although they do take up a lot of room in my stands bag.

    I haven’t come up with a substitute for the floor part (plexi / tileboard) though. Can either be cut into smaller pieces and taped together with white tape once on location? I’m thinking I’d rather Photoshop some seams on the floor and have it look right as opposed to having the whole floor area look grey. Also, I am concerned with spending all kinds of money just to end up with a lot of pieces I can’t use for much else. The tileboard is cheaper so that may be the way to go but perhaps you or another reader can advise how to cut it without wreaking it or ending up with all raggedy-ugly edges as the white surface doesn’t go all the way through.

    Well, sorry for the long post. I’d sure appreciate your input or that of any of your proficient readers. Thanks.

  33. D. Saunders Says:

    Oh, one other thing to mention – the floor of the conference center has very lo-nap industrial carpeting so if I tape together pieces to make up the “shiny floor” they’d need to be big / sturdy enough that the weight of the subject in the chair doesn’t crack them.

    I have access to a U-Haul on Saturday to pick up foamcore, tileboard or plexi for this so I’m hoping to hear some thoughts before that if at all possible.

    The good thing about getting plexi although expensive is that I can get that cut to size, I think. I don’t think Home Depot will cut the tileboard but I can always ask. So, if the tileboard is cheaper and comes in 4×8, maybe I can get it professionally cut to 4×4. I have no doubt that if I try to cut it, I’ll mangle it. Thanks again.

  34. Ian Newbold Says:

    Hi Greg,
    Have you ever shot family groups on a white screen, I am a school photographer I use open flash on the background white pvc 10ft wide with a 24ft drop x2 esprit 250 @ f11-16 the subject is about 3ft away from the screen, main light about 7ft from the subject esprit 500@f8 fill in 8ft away esprit 500@f5.6.
    problem shaddow in the fore ground, any answers as no one has an answer
    regards Ian

  35. shaun Says:

    One tip for checking if there are any areas of the background that aren’t pure white is create a new curve layer. Click about 1/3 up on the curve and drag right down to the bottom this will REALLy darken any near whites and allow you to easily dodge them.

  36. sarah Says:

    THANK you for the detailed and pleasant article. I love the reflection from the shiny plexi floor. Cool idea. My vow for this year is to minimise my computer time. I’ll let you know how I get on!

  37. Mario Says:

    Hello. Thank you for sharing your information. My question is can you use normal lights meaning like bulbs on a stand to light the background. I have only one light to light the subject. I live in the Caribbean and I have to buy everything in the USA and it cost alot to ship and all these things. I am limited to money at this moment but I am seeking help in the sense of if I know I could use a normal daylight light to light the background. Thank you

  38. This week: We talk ’bout backgrounds | Rooskie Blog Says:

    [...] using a white screen you want to keep in mind the lightness in color of your subject (skin color, clothing color etc if [...]

  39. Phil Says:

    I want to buy some lights to blow out a white background but am unsure what lights to go for!? Any suggestions would be most helpful

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