Sunday, January 10, 2010

Shooting on a White Seamless

We had two break it up in three parts. In this first installment we show you ten different light setups for lighting a model on a white seamless background. Also, in this tutorial we demonstrate how to make a white background pure white and/or gray by moving the lights.

The 9' or 12' white seamless is a playground for photographers. One can create so many effects by using just one light. The white background is a classic studio backdrop for fashion, advertising and portraits. Legends such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Patrick Demarchelier to name a few.....have created masterpieces of the century using a white seamless paper/white canvas/painted white cove wall etc. Lets start with the clean shots first.

There are many ways for creating this type of clean white look. In this tutorial we will show around 4 to 5ways to do this. The most important about shooting on a white background is the subject distance from the background. The technique is to light the background first to make it bright white, one stop above whatever you think is the perfect exposure. Then place the model far from the background so that none of the light bounced from the background reaches the model. So if you shoot the model without lighting her, you should get a silhouette.


The first method is using four large sized softboxes. This lighting is the easiest way of achieving evenly lit subjects on clean white backdrop. The softboxes on the background are about one or even two stops above the softboxes in the front which is lighting the model. Say, for a shutterspeed 1/250, the front lights lighting the model are set to f11, then the softboxes lighting the background should be around f16 or f18. The camera aperture should always be set to the lights lighting the model, which in this example would be f11. Take a look at the light setup below.

Now, say if you want the floor of this white paper background to have a reflective sheen, you can add a white plexi glass blow the model.

Another way to light for this background is by replacing the side softboxes by a smaller softbox on a boom stand just above the models head pointing at her, and a stripbox on the floor and placed a bit away from her so that it doesn't show up in the frame. So, if your background softboxes are at f16, the softbox on boom and stripbox should be f11. Two white bounce cards on the models either side provides fill light. Personally, we keep the stripbox around f8 to give more prominence to the softbox above lighting her face. You can see that extra power from the top softbox in the image below.


The above images are good for cutouts if you want to put them on a bright background. But for universal cutouts ie. if you are not sure what the background will be like, it is a good idea to throw in some shadows to make the images more 3D and more contrasty compared to the above images. By doing this, the image won't look fake when put against a dark say a sunset.

In the example below we used four bare strobes to light the background. Two on top left and right, two at the bottom left and right so that the spread is even all over the backdrop.Model is far enough from the backdrop to catch any bounced light. There are two black cards on both her sides to cut any stray light from the strobes lighting the backdrop to fall on her. The model is lit by a 32deg honeycomb grid, which gives dark shadows with soft edges....and there is no light used on the floor for fill. The white paper background on the floor reflects some light back from the grid to fill in the shadows slightly below the models purse in the image below.

The shadows that you see above make it more realistic when you cut it out and put it in a dark background. We will show that in an upcoming photoshop tutorial. Now, lets see another way to light for cutouts. In the image below, we used two silver umbrellas to light the background. Since i was shooting a midshot, the spread is more than enough, but for full length, you might need more to cover the entire area. (In the tutorial for cleaning white backgrounds here, you can see how a full length shot looks with just two medium umbrellas lighting the backdrop).

The model was lit with a beauty dish on the left of camera, and we removed one black bounce card from where the light was placed. This gives a directional lighting which you can decide on the basis of where the main light source is in the final image in which you want to place the model. The little rim light on the models cheekbones which gives a nice definition, is actually the light bouncing from the background. The black card makes the light very slim and defined. To remove it completely, you can move the model one step towards the camera.


Take a look at this last setup for a clean white background below. The big softboxes light the background, and this time, we used a large octabox as the main light tolight the models.

Like we said before, the technique is to light the models and the background seperately independant of each other. So, by simply not lighting the background, you can make it gray. Thats what we did in the image below. We turned the lights from the background to point them as side lights on the models. We also changed the square box to a stripbox on both the lights. The resulting image has a light gray background.

Notice that we placed the stripbox lighting the female models side, slightly far away compared to the one on the male models side. This was to reduce the intensity of light falling on her. Lets see one image with a very simmilar lighting. The model below is lit with a grid on the face, while an octabox provides fill to the rest of her body. There is a stripbox used as sidelight and absolutely no lights on the background. (notice the white acrylic/plexiglass on which she is standing)

The images above are light gray since there is stray light from the main light falling on the background. This time around the distance between the model and the background helps again to avoid her shadow from falling on the background.

The background looks a bit flat in the above image. Lets try to give it a glow or a soft radial gradation of light. See the example below. We used a snoot(you can use a grid too) at very low power to give that radial glow in the background.

Now for the last and most artistic shot of this tutorial. This time we make the background completely dark and for the glow we used a grid instead of the snoot. It was places behind the model so that she blocked it. The light stand legs were cloned out in photoshop. There are no front lights. The key is the umbrella on the camera right and the fill is the umbrella on camera left at one stop less power. The cutter/flag/gobo (whatever makes you happy) is placed in front of the left umbrella to block the stray light from falling on the backdrop. And yes, for the top two and the image below, there was a fan used to blow the hair.

So there you have it.......shooting on a white seamless background!


  1. Really good post. When I am asked this question by someone for the 99,999th time, I'll be sure to send them here ;-)

  2. Thank you! Really interesting! I'm struggling with a white canvas to date... still learning...

  3. The with bagground is no new subject to me, that's at least what I thought.
    I new it from big studios and working with films and now I'm back in studio after years.
    I just moved into a new studio, a bit narrow,3,5 meters and I'm having big problems with stray light. A part from the lens quallity, Nikon lenses on D300,I could find better but that should do! I'm asking my self if it's the frontal lightning of the white paper which is reflecting strongly back, and not a below 45° angle of lightning, combined with the digital camera? I'm lightning the wall behind me and let it go on model and bagground,the subject 1m distance from the bagground which get's "whity". I'll ad somthing extra to my subject.My lens is under big protection from stray lights.The results is amasingly "milky". Should it be that bad to use the 90° and not the below 45° angle to expose the white paper?

  4. Hi bb,

    More than the angle of light, you need to control the amount of light falling on your subject and most importantly....the spread of light. Since you have a small room, you would be better off with a honeycomb or beauty dish rather than a large softbox. Also beware of the walls around and ceiling reflecting light on your model.

  5. very usefull

  6. I want to say thank you for this article. From what I have found before is just the f-stop difference from the background and key lights. Being new to studio lighting this really helps.

  7. Can you give me more information about the Plexiglass sheet you use on the floor? Is it white or clear? How thick is it? What size do you use? Does it get scratched easily? Are there any precautions (health & safety or anything else) that you must take when using it? Any other advice about it would be much appreciated

  8. I used both white and transparent ones. They are 1/2 inch thick and around 4x8feet in size. They are flexible and breakable if bent too much. Always use it on a flat floor surface. It doesn't get scratched easily but you have to clean it regularly for it to look new and dirt free.