If you're outfitting a shooting space of any sort, from huge studio to converted garage, one of the most useful tools is a V-flat. V-flats are easy and inexpensive do-it-yourself projects, and they're useful as everything from a multi-purpose light modifier to a portrait background. Here's how to make them and put them to use.
First, a definition. A flat, in theater speak, is a background that's easily movable. They can be almost any size, but in a photographic studio a common size for flats is 4x8 feet. Hinge two flats together and they'll stand on their own in a V shape. Voila, the V-flat.
When you're purchasing materials to build a V-flat, consider doubling this recipe in order to build a pair. They're exponentially more useful in twos, and since you're already building one, the second will be a snap.
V-flats are typically constructed out of foam board, which is available in various thicknesses. I recently used sheets that were only a quarter-inch thick, and this is about as thin as you can go. Had my supplier offered half-inch thickness in stock I would have jumped at it, as this would prevent the V-flat from bowing and bending, and it would make for a sturdier, longer lasting V-flat. (I've also used various foam-based home insulation boards found at big box hardware stores. These can be had in shiny silver, matte silver and white; all are very useful in a photo studio.) The nice thing about foamcore in particular, though, is that the surface works very well as a background too. There's a quality to it that I find quite pleasing, in both white and in black.
Speaking of colors, the typical V-flat is going to be white or black and sometimes both. White is useful, clearly, as a photographic reflector. Stand the V-flat adjacent to a portrait subject opposite the key light and you've got an instant fill. Black is great as a full length flag and a negative fill for adding edge definition. Both are particularly useful, which is why if you can find foamcore that's white on one side and black on the other, snatch it up. You'll get two uses (reflector and flag) out of a single V-flat. Brilliant, if I do say so myself.
So here's the deal: all you need to assemble a V-flat, besides the foam board, is tape. Gaff tape works best because you can match the color, and it's a durable studio staple. Rather than laying your two pieces of foamcore side by side on the long dimension, you'll want to lay one on top of the other for taping. Otherwise you'll create a seam so tight that it won't swing easily. I learned this trick the hard way. Once you've taped one side, flip the boards over (i.e. swing them 180 degrees via your half-completed tape hinge) and tape the other side. That's all there is to it. Total cost is anywhere from $25 to $50, depending on the thickness of the board, whether it's white or black or both, and if you've already got a big roll of gaffer's tape on hand.
I use my V-flats most often as reflectors and flags, on the white and black sides, respectively. But I enjoy them most when they're actually in the shot. I frequently use them for quick-change portrait backgrounds, going from black to white as quickly as I can swing them closed. I even recently used the V-flat as a tiny corner when photographing a model. The unique compositional element made for interesting poses and a bit of a twist on an otherwise straightforward session, proving yet another use for these already useful light-modifying tools.