A photograph is not made in the camera but on either side of it.-Edward Steichen
When I first began capturing portraits in the studio I relied on natural light from a large bay window. The north facing window supplies so much light that I needed to hang a double row of sheer curtains to diffuse the light. Using natural light – or “God light” – as we like to say in the biz, will always be a favorite for capturing portraits and, in particular, the ethereal back-lit portraits that my clients love so much.
The trouble with relying solely on natural light is that even in sunny Tucson, there are rainy and overcast days. And on those gray and cloudy days there isn’t enough light coming through the big bay window to capture properly exposed portraits. No light, no photography is an indisputable rule. As a business owner, I need to be ready to capture portraits under any conditions and deliver images consistent with my brand whether the sun is shining or not.
The answer to being able to photograph at anytime in my studio – rain or shine, day or night – is strobes. A strobe is a device that produces a controlled flash of light. The studio’s photoshoots typically include the use of natural light, strobe light and a mix of both to create and capture a range of looks for my clients’ artfully stylized Fine Art Portrait Collections.
Many studio photographers will start out using black and white V-Flats and seamless paper as backdrops in studio. V-Flats are used to control light and they also work well as backgrounds. Seamless paper is convenient to use because the roles of paper are available in 65 colors and 5 different sizes. Seamless paper is also relatively inexpensive and one roll of paper can last a long time. Gray paper can be lit to appear white, gray or black in a photograph making it a convenient and versatile studio staple.
For portrait photographers, painted backdrops are a key component to crafting an image. The most coveted hand painted backdrops are made by Sarah Oliphant of Oliphant Studio in New York. There isn’t a portrait photographer I know that wouldn’t love to own at least one of her gorgeous signature backdrops. Excellence, as we know, comes with a price. And her bespoke backdrops start at five figures and are well worth the money. My challenge is that I enjoy variety. I don’t want just one gorgeous backdrop. Apparently I want twenty.
Once I added studio strobes to my lighting set-ups I began purchasing backdrops. The first backdrop that I purchased is what I refer to as “Old Masters” red. The color is deep, rich and textured. The red backdrop is still, after all this time, one of my favorites. After red, came gray. Then gold, followed by the blondie silver. Then periwinkle, then olive green. And so on. You get the picture… once a photographer starts down the path of acquiring backdrops it is difficult to stop. But hand painted backdrops are an investment, no matter who makes them, so that helps reign in the addiction but does little to negate the desire.
Here’s the thing. Not everybody enjoys painting. I do. Back in the 1990’s when specialty painting arrived on the scene featured in popular catalogs such as Pottery Barn, my oldest sister, Linda and I were inspired to faux paint the walls of my home in northern California. Based upon that successful experience I couldn’t help but think that painting backdrops for the studio shouldn’t be too difficult. If I can faux paint a wall, then certainly I can faux paint a canvas. I just needed space and time, two things that were in short supply until Covid-19 arrived and for all practical purposes shut the world down.
In July, after months of trying to talk myself out of it, I stopped vacillating and made the decision to embark upon “The Backdrop Project”. Over three weeks I painted a whopping thirteen backdrops in my family room. I started out painting carefully and by the end I went all Jackson Pollock on a large gray canvas while trying to be mindful to not inadvertently splatter paint on the surrounding walls and furniture.
In the next umpteen blog posts or so, I will dedicate a post to each studio backdrop along with example photographs. Documenting the various backdrop options will help my clients and I design photoshoots together. Keep in mind that each photoshoot is unique and designed specifically to meet the needs of each client. Styling is certainly an important factor of designing a cohesive photograph and it is the background, whether it is subtle or assertive, that combines with the other elements to complete the look.