Home How-To Tip Of The Week Creating Bright White Backgrounds—03/28/11
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Monday, March 28, 2011

Creating Bright White Backgrounds—03/28/11

Seven steps for perfect portraits on pure white

This Article Features Photo Zoom


Anybody can shoot subjects against a white background. But take a look around the Internet and you'll quickly see that most folks don't do it very well. The white backgrounds quickly turn to light gray or, even worse, an overexposed abyss of lens flair and exposure mistakes—anything but nice, clean, pure bright white. Here's how to shoot a portrait on a white background, no matter what kind of lights you're using.

- Start with a white wall. The easiest way to create white is to start with white. You can turn just about any background white by throwing enough light at it, but it's easiest and most effective when you start with white in the first place. If it's a white wall, great. If it's white paper, that's fine too. If it's anything else...paint it. At least while you're starting, use a white background so you don't drive yourself insane trying to effectively overexpose some other tonality.

- Light separately. One light can do a lot, but if you're going for a bright white background it's easiest and most effective to light the subject and background separately. Use one light (or more) for the background, and one light (or more) for the subject. Just don't try to use the same light for both. If you can get a white background lit a stop brighter than the subject, you're well on your way to a bright white background. One and a half stops is even better—as long as you don't cause flare.

- Use a soft source. The broader and softer the light source used to illuminate the background, the easier it will be to create an even illumination across the frame. That means a softbox (instead of a bare flash bulb) suspended over the subject and aimed at the background, or a pair of lights with umbrellas placed at the sides of the frame and feathered across the background. (By the way, feathering means to point the right light more to the left, and the left light more to the right. It helps to fight hot spots.) If you still own a light meter, use it to check for even illumination across the background.

- Increase distance. The larger the distance between subject and background the easier it is to light the two independently without light spilling from one to the other. Place a subject a good ten feet from a light or white wall for a good start to separation from the background. If it's a darker background that you'll be splashing with more light to try to get white, you'll need even more distance from the subject. The added benefit of increased distance is your main light won't cast a shadow from the subject onto the background either.

- Fight spill with flags. The greater the distance from subject to background, the less likely you are to have the background light bounce back onto the subject. The problem with spill is that it muddies the distinction between subject and background, and it makes it harder to create a crisp subject separation from a white background. Besides distance, another way to eliminate spill from background lights to the subject is to use flags, or barriers of any sort, to cast shadows from the background lights where they would otherwise spill onto the subject.

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