The best thing about a photograph is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.
This medium gray textured backdrop is a little less than 5′ wide making it ideal for layering with other backdrops in the studio. It’s also ideal for transporting in a vehicle if I’m shooting on location.
In the photo of Andrea, above, the backdrop is layered with the Old Masters Brown. If layering isn’t your thing, the gray backdrop can be easily extended in Photoshop. Here’s an example:
The studio has five additional hand painted gray backgrounds to choose between for portrait sessions: charcoal gray, chalk paint blue-gray, light gray and warm light gray. For a more commercial look, seamless paper is also a favorite choice.
What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”
For the studio’s backdrop project I created four gray backdrops in shades from light to dark. The light gray and charcoal gray are roughly the same dimension, perfect for individuals, couples and smaller groups. The two smaller gray drops are ideal for individuals, or for layering with larger backdrops.
My general rule for backdrops is to photograph lighter colors on lighter backdrops and darker colors on darker backdrops. When selecting a backdrop the main goal is to complement the model’s wardrobe. On an interesting note, gray isn’t a color at all because it does not exist on the color wheel.
According to Wikipedia: “Gray is produced either by using black and white, or by combining equal amounts of cyan, magenta, and yellow. Most grays have a cool or warm cast to them, as the human eye can detect even a minute amount of color saturation. Yellow, orange and red create a “warm gray”. Green, blue, and violet create a “cool gray”.”
The charcoal gray backdrop is a neutral color and looks just as good with a pop of color as it does with a monochrome palette (as an example see Andrea’s cover image above). The texture in the charcoal backdrop was created by incorporating other neutral tones including light gray, black and white.
This backdrop was one of the last that I painted, so I was “unintentionally intentional” with the random painting technique opting to unleash my inner Jackson Pollock on to the canvas. I dipped a paint brush about a quarter inch into the can and then made slapping gestures with downward force to splatter the paint randomly across the surface. I had to continually remind myself to be careful with my gestures to avoid inadvertently spraying paint on the living room walls or the surrounding furniture (that had been pushed to the perimeter of the room).
Besides apple boxes, V-Flats are the hardest working equipment in my studio. The V-Flats are made from two 4′ x 8′ polystyrene boards that are taped together in a V shape with gaffer tape. A V-Flat is white on one side and black on the reverse side. The white side is used to bounce light. The black side absorbs light, which is also referred to as negative fill.
In addition to adding or subtracting light, V-Flats also make terrific backdrops. A set of V-Flats has a permanent home as a backdrop in a corner of the studio. Then there are three more V-Flat sets and two individual boards that are moved around the studio, as needed, to either control light, or act as backdrops.
My preference is a backdrop that is 10′ x 15′ or even 20′ long so I can spend less time in Photoshop. There are so many better ways to spend my time than expanding backdrops and removing taped seams in photo editing software. Additionally, if I’m shooting a full length portrait with a V-Flat, I need to add a floor to the set. Usually I’ll lay down a strip of 4′ x 10′ black fabric over the wood floor to make the set look like a seamless backdrop when it is not.
All this fuss created my desire to own a much larger, darker, textured, so long it sweeps the floor, hand painted canvas. In July, while sheltering indoors from Covid-19, I painted what I coined the Old Masters Brown backdrop. While I was at it, I painted twelve more backdrops too. Once I started it was difficult to stop. Now I primarily use the brown backdrop and reserve the use of the V-Flats when photographing wall poses in the corner of my studio.
With so many backdrop options to choose from in the studio, V-Flats will remain in the mix. Both white and black V-Flats look great as backdrops, especially when photographing in the corner. Here’s some examples:
I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors is black.
-Pierre-August Renoir, French Impressionist Painter, 1841-1919
There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.
Old Masters refers to a group of renowned European painters that spanned the time period of roughly 1300 to 1800, from the early Renaissance through the Romantic movement. Some instantly recognizable names of Old Masters are Rembrandt van Rijn, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio, to name only a few.
When perusing through a collection of Old Masters’ paintings, frequently the backgrounds are deep brown and textured giving an overall warmth to the scene. Brown and helps colors such as white, ivory, orange red and gold to pop on the canvas. Brown does not have a spot on the color spectrum. The color is made by mixing red (or orange), yellow and black (or blue).
The color brown is reportedly the least favorite color of the general public and yet a section of the Old Masters’ portraitists found that earthy brown enabled brighter colors to pop on a canvas. As for me, brown is the color of a few of my favorite things: chocolate, coffee, oak barrels (especially when aging red wine), yummy carbolicious russet potatoes, the beautiful Sonoran desert and raptors, in particular owls.
Rembrandt, Caravaggio and van Dyck, among others, employed a style of painting called chiaroscuro. This effect has a monochrome look where the subject’s wardrobe matches the background so that the subject’s features illuminate out of the darkness. The most popular color for creating this effect is brown.
The most difficult part of painting for me is selecting the colors for the project. Without a plan in place the paint sample display at a retail store will look like a big confusing grid of color. To hone in on the best colors for your project it is really helpful to have a color reference in hand to either make a match to the free color samples, or have the paint retailer run a color match.
When I initially thought I was painting one double-sided backdrop I agonized over the colors. The painterly style photographs I make generate the biggest buzz. Many of those images were photographed on textured gold and red backdrops. I wanted a darker option that was not too black and not too brown, but just right.
I like photographing clients against a black V-Flat, which is a polystyrene board. In a photograph it looks like more of a charcoal gray gradient than solid black. My sister, Juliette advised that the best way to compare colors is to take the reference material into the sun and compare it to the paint sample cards to identify the best match. So that’s what we did. After viewing the polystyrene board in the sun, the paint we selected had a blue cast to the black, which I did not anticipate. The color brown that we chose is a Behr flat interior paint called espresso bean. It is definitely a rich brown that has a black undertone to it.
My big mistake right from the get go is that I inadvertently purchased an oil based primer. I didn’t know that oil-based primers were still available to purchase. I was a little confused when I tried to thin the primer with water and the primer wouldn’t mix with the water. This was a bit of a head scratcher for me. And I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t figure it out until after I completed painting both sides of the backdrop using a whopping two gallons of primer on the 12×15 canvas. This also means that the primer alone on the canvas weighs in at a little less than 20 pounds.
I woke up one morning and the first thing that popped into my brain was that I had somehow purchased an oil-based primer instead of latex. And that’s why the oil and water weren’t mixing together into a smooth emulsion. Plus the oil primer has a strong aroma, much more so than latex paint. Doh! Sure enough, when I checked the empty can it clearly read oil based primer on the label.
The problem is that over the long haul latex paint may not adhere to an oil-based primer. I couldn’t get a clear answer from multiple sources on whether the paint will indeed peel over time. Unfortunately, the part of the backdrop that flows onto the floor is peeling a bit already from normal wear and tear of furniture movement during photoshoots. So while the oil primer was a mistake, perhaps even a regrettable one over the long haul, I do think the oil primer lent a richness to the finish that is clearly different from the acrylic over acrylic backdrops that I painted.
Despite my whopper of a mistake, I am really happy with how this backdrop turned out. The rich brown is a neutral color, which means all warm colors look great against it as do most of the cool colors, especially the lighter hues.
A photograph is not made in the camera but on either side of it.
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.