Thursday, April 1, 2004

Budget backdrops


By James Booth

They say, "Necessity is the mother of invention." I disagree. I think that photographers are the "mother" of invention.

Do you think you need to spend hundreds of dollars on seamless muslin backgrounds to have studio-quality portraits? Well you don't, and I'll show you a few methods that work well for me and yield rather nice results for very little money.

Harvesting household items

One of the cheapest and most readily available household items that can be used as a backdrop is that big blanket you have folded up in the closet. Blankets, quilts, and bedspreads make readily accessible backdrops and come in a variety of sizes, colors, and patterns. My father, also a photographer, once told me "the blue blanket is the photographer's best friend." In Figure A, you can see he was right, as a blue blanket makes an excellent backdrop.


Don't let your backdrop make you blue. Get a blue blankey. (click for larger image)

Patchwork quilts will give a nice, homey, country feel. Character or cartoon-based children's bedspreads or comforters make good backdrops for children's portraits. [Do be aware, however, that if you do use a character or cartoon-based backdrop, and you plan to have your image published, there may be licensing or copyright issues involved. -- DG]

Look around your house; there are a lot of things that have unique textures, coloring, or patterns. In Figure B, I used my patio umbrella as a backdrop by laying it on its side.


Be creative. Feel free to use found objects. (click for larger image)

Don't discount things like area rugs, tapestries, or drapes either. Anything with interesting color, texture, or patterning can be a backdrop.

Make sure you take into account variations in contrast though. Take Figure C for example.


Be aware of the exposure differences between foreground and backdrop. (click for larger image)

I used a beautiful antique piano with a uniquely carved sound panel as the backdrop. But because I exposed for the light color of my daughter's clothes, the piano came out too dark and you can't see any of the beautiful, handcrafted woodwork. I very easily could have remedied this by illuminating the piano with a separate light, like a snoot, or adjusting my exposure. It didn't occur to me at the time, the image suffered as a result, and I didn't know until after the film was developed.

Do it yourself

How would you like to have one of those vari-colored, mottled backdrops like the professionals use? Those seamless muslin ones often sell for hundreds of dollars. Yeah, I wanted one too, but couldn't afford one either. So I made my own, and you can too. It's quite simple.