Kirk Tuck explains how to get lighting and exposure right when shooting a portrait with one or more people against a clean, white background in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography
This excerpt from Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media website.
I get more queries about shooting people against a white-out background than about anything else. I’ll show you the way I do it—but keep in mind that there are dozens of variations to this technique and some parameters will change with the size of your studio.
Prepare the Seamless. Start with a white seamless paper. Sweep it out at least ten feet into the room and tape or anchor it to your floor. Then, place a shiny piece of formica on the floor for full-length shots. The formica picks up the light bouncing from the backdrop and the specular highlight this causes makes the surface go totally white when you shoot. It also gives the subject a “mark” to stand on, while saving wear and tear on the paper.
Light the Background. Evenly light the background. Umbrellas definitely make it easy to get a nice, even spread of light across the background (but always use black-backed umbrella to prevent any light from spilling forward). You can substitute small softboxes for the umbrellas, but the umbrellas are more even, more efficient, and much less expensive. I use four lights on the background when I’m shooting a full-length portrait. Aim each umbrella toward the far edge of the background (the left umbrellas will be aimed at the right edge of the background and vice versa). This “feathers” the light and will help ensure a smooth spread of light. Using an incident light meter, I try to make every part of the background that will show in the image measure within 1/4 stop. This creates a perfectly even background.
A good white background beats doing clipping paths every day of the week. Some clients request portraits against a white background because they anticipate multiple uses with several different backgrounds.
Frame the Subject. Using large, black panels, “frame” your subject with black panels placed behind them. Set these up so that the edges of the black panels nearly, but not quite, touch the edges of your subject. This will reduce lens flare and eliminate any light bouncing from the background onto the subject. It will also provide a nice edge on the outside contours of your subject. If you’ve done it correctly, it will always be easy to add more white area around the subject in postproduction.
Add the Front Light. Now, front light your subject and set your lights so that the background lights are 1/3 stop hotter (higher in measured intensity) than those on your subject. If the background is too hot (bright) the reflected light will wrap around your subject and reduce contrast to the point that there is no definable subject edge. If the background light is too low, you’ll get a muddy background with texture that needs to be clipped or masked in postproduction, adding time to your project and reducing the natural look of a white-out background.
Shade Your Lens. Now you’re ready to shoot—and the image will look a lot more natural than trying to cut your subject out of a background using software. If you want the very best results, be sure to shade your lens as rigorously as possible. I use a compendium shade and cut strips of black wrap in order to “flag off” the light, preventing any spill light from hitting the lens. Always use the longest lens you can, given the size of your studio. The longer the lens, the less surface area of the background is shown. This is very helpful in keeping the background evenly lit.
A “Dramatic” Case Study
While writing the above description, I got a phone call from a marketing director at a local non-profit group who asked me to do a series of photographs against white with five actors. This would be used to market their production of the musical Altar Boys. We used a large studio at the theater and went through the process of setting up the lights and the background. I thought I’d share this example to show that my above description is a best-case scenario. All setups are fluid and subject to change.
Here’s the setup. The camera distorts relative sizes and distances, so rather than just looking at the photos, let me talk you through the shoot.
It was Saturday morning and I met my assistants, Will and Amy, at Zachary Scott Theater. We’d been asked to do a series of images of the five actors who would star in Altar Boys. The art director requested that all the images be shot against a white background, because several of the layouts would later have different backgrounds and graphic treatments dropped in. We needed to set up a wide roll of seamless in order to fit all the actors in. We also needed a lot of depth in our makeshift studio so I could use a longer lens. A long lens used further from the background helps to hide the edges of the background. Use a shorter lens and you may have trouble with the edges of the background intruding.
We always start with the background. This is a view from the background.
Will and Amy got to work on setting up a roll of nine-foot wide, bright-white seamless paper against one wall, while I set up the camera and lens we’d be using. They pulled the paper out about twelve feet into the room to create a sweep with no horizon line. When the paper was rolled out correctly, they used an “A” clamp to attach the roll to the crossbar so that the paper didn’t continue
to spool out. The front of the paper was taped down with white gaffer’s tape so that the slight roll of the paper didn’t obscure people’s shoes. Once the background was in place and secured, we got on with the job of lighting.
We used the four black umbrellas to light the background. In this instance, Amy measured the light falling on the paper with an incident light meter, every few feet from side to side, and found it to be within 1/10 stop!
From the camera position, you can see all four of the black-covered umbrellas aimed into the white seamless—as well as the large silver reflector to the right.
I had recently fallen in love with the quality of light from the 80-inch Lastolite umbrella, so I decided to use it again. I set the umbrella up in a very counterintuitive way, though. Rather than use it close in, to emphasize its softness, I used it at least twenty-five feet away from the subjects and approximately 30 degrees from my camera position. I placed it up as high as I could get it and I put a lot of power into it with one head connected to a Profoto Acute 1200Ws pack. This gave me both a soft light that would cover the actors evenly and also (because of its distance to the actors) it gave me light with a sense of direction.
I placed a silver reflector on the opposite side of the boys to bounce some fill into the right side of the set up and we started shooting. I wasn’t accustomed to using the Profoto 1200Ws unit at full power and kept shooting before the recycle indicator beeped. Will gently reminded me that if I turned the box down to half power and turned up the ISO on the camera I would have a much faster recycle time. It worked.
An hour after the setup, we did what photographers dread most: we took everything back down, repacked all the gear, and cleaned up. Next stop? Chuy’s for Tex Mex food. This is Austin, after all.
All of our main lighting for this image came from the 80-inch umbrella. This shot of the setup was taken from the camera position.
After the setup and fine-tuning were done, we actually got to shoot!