For years, whenever someone has asked me to shoot a full-length portrait on a white background, I roll out a 9-foot seamless paper. The problem with paper, of course, is that it wrinkles and rips and tears and you have to worry whenever someone stands on it that they’re going to pull the whole thing down. The better way to achieve this “infinity” look, and to do it on a bigger scale, is to use a cyclorama, or cyc wall for short. These permanent installations feature a curved transition from wall to floor, making for a seamless “infinity” style background—whether white, black or otherwise. This look is a very popular request in stills and video, and so having a cyc wall is definitely a useful addition to any studio space. Here’s one way someone with fairly basic handyman skills can install a straightforward cyc wall.
There are lots of solutions out there, including the more time-consuming and cumbersome approach of framing out the curved wall and bending drywall and maybe even plywood to make the curve. That approach is likely less expensive, but certainly more involved if you don’t know what you’re doing. Instead of this approach, at my studio we chose to use a custom-cut extruded foam cyclorama from Cyc Wall Systems, a southern California company that caters to photo studios and motion picture soundstages.
The approach is pretty straightforward: measure your space and send your dimensions, and Cyc Wall Systems will custom cut your wall out of large chunks of high-density polystyrene, so it’s light in weight but very strong and rigid. It’s coated with a skim of fiberglass-reinforced concrete to make it durable and then shipped to your space—whether that’s a purpose-built photo studio or a converted barn or garage. Once you’ve got a cyc wall installed, it’ll definitely be a real photo studio.
The company provides step-by-step instructions for installation, and it’s best to pay attention and follow their suggestions. We made the mistake of going rogue and wound up needing to fine-tune the installation because we didn’t follow those instructions to the letter.
The first step is to lay out the cyc wall pieces where you want them in a dry fit manner. Then, after cleaning and prepping the floor surface as well as the wall, apply strong construction adhesive (such as Gorilla Glue) to both surfaces (the Styrofoam and the wall) and press into place. The company suggests Gorilla Glue in particular and also suggests first dampening the surfaces to be adhered. Because the adhesive expands as it cures, cut thin wood strips to screw into the wall to keep the top edge of the cyc pressed hard to the wall and then use sandbags to weigh down the leading edge at the floor. After 24 hours, your cyc wall will be stuck in place and ready for removal of the sandbags and the securing strips. Then, it’s all about finishing to a smooth, texture-free surface.
Anyone who has ever worked with drywall knows that making a nice smooth seamless finish is all about taking your time and using several passes with the drywall mud with larger and larger joint knives. Trying to do it all in one or two steps (the error we made) won’t save time in the end when you have to redo the work. So, just take the time from the get-go to do it right.
As you’re using joint compound to finish the top edge and seams of the cyc wall (with a mesh in place to keep them from cracking), also use a thinned “topping” style coating of mud to cover the plaster on the curve of the cyc wall. This will eliminate any texture and help make it appear perfectly smooth and “infinite” when lit for the camera.
At the seam between cyc wall and floor, Cyc Wall Systems says it’s best to use something stronger than joint compound—a concrete-like mortar that will be incredibly strong when dry and won’t be as prone to wear as joint compound would be. Drywall mud is made for walls, after all, so this makes sense. We found, however, that you have to be very careful when applying the mortar as it’s easy to build up a lip on the front edge of the cyc wall. What you really need is just a thin bead to fill in the quarter-inch gap between cyc wall and floor without getting much of the mixture atop the edge of the insert. The other bummer about mortar is, unlike drywall, you can’t easily sand it smooth. So be careful. Measure twice, cut once, and remember less is more.
Once the joints have been mudded and sanded smooth, the final step is painting. I like to use a primer first—such as latex Kilz, which offers sufficient coverage and is much easier to work with than the oil-based variety—followed by two coats of bright white latex paint.
In the end, the surface should be smooth enough not to make any shadows no matter how light falls across it. You can check your work by positioning a light to rake across the seams; if you see shadows, keep sanding.
Installing a cyc wall pays off with every subsequent shoot. It offers a wonderful seamless background for headshots, full-length portraits and video as well. You can light it bright white to make the background disappear or stand the subject closer to the wall and let the key light create shadows on the background. Both approaches work well and show that, with a cyc wall installed, you’ve got lots of great options when it comes to photographing people from head to toe.