Backdrops for Photoshoots Tutorial

Studio Backdrop: Teal

Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.

-Paul Klee
Andrea is wearing an olive colored shirt with fringe detail along with a turquoise squash blossom and a silver concho belt. This image was captured with a mix of natural light and a studio strobe.

One of the first things I learned about painting backdrops is that a backdrop isn’t finished until it is photographed. As you can see in the picture below, the backdrop is actually quite lighter in tone than how it appears in the above portrait of Andrea.

The base color of the backdrop is a blue gray color called Dragonfly by Behr. I wanted a turquoise hued backdrop but the name Dragonfly was a deal cincher. The color leans more towards teal than turquoise, if one wants to get into the nitty-gritty detail over it.

With the backdrops that I started painting towards the end of the project, I changed my technique and began mixing paint colors in the tray. It might be difficult to see in the photos (below) but the paints are thinned quite a bit with water. I didn’t have a formula for thinning the primer and paints, but generally I was aiming for a consistency of very thin pancake batter. I wasn’t stingy with adding water. I guesstimate that the ratio was around 40% water to 60% paint.

With some of the backdrops I added texture by using sea sponges to dab on color. At other times I worked in about two foot squares using a large brush that I sacrificed for the job of pounding two or more colors of paint together on the canvas. On the vintage pink canvas I employed a heavy duty spray bottle to apply multiple colors of very thinned paint all over the canvas. On the large charcoal gray canvas I splattered paint invoking the spirit of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock to create random texture.

The “teal” backdrop is comprised of five colors: dragonfly blue, charcoal gray, light gray, ocher and creamy white. The colors were applied to the canvas using the texture roller featured in the photo in the upper right corner.

I found that there is no wrong or right way to add texture. Just like there is no wrong or right way to take a photograph. At some point experience and instinct come together to create some magic. If you don’t like what you are creating, keep going, try new techniques and don’t stop until you are satisfied with the result.

My drawing 101 and 102 teacher at Saratoga Junior College in Northern California always said to not discard a drawing. She encouraged her students to work through dissatisfaction. Art, like life, is a series of decisions. Adjustments are made continually along the way as you learn and navigate the process. The great thing about painting is that if you don’t like what’s happening on the canvas, you can just let the layer dry and start afresh. Keep painting until you like what you see. Let the backdrop dry overnight and then photograph it the next morning. The camera will “see” the backdrop differently than your eyes do.

This backdrop has five colors, plus whatever colors they make when mixed together. When I thought that I perhaps went too far with too many colors the last thing I would do is create a light wash of the primary color. With a light hand I’d roll the paint (that was thinned a lot with water – perhaps 50%) over the entire canvas using the texture roller. I coined this step a “unifying wash” because that’s what it did. The primary color became a glaze on top of the backdrop and married all the colors.

Towards the end of the project I started adding leftover colors from some of the drops to the new drops I was painting. I felt that perhaps adding a bit of those colors would make a cohesive collection. Even if the effect is subtle I like the idea of complementary colors across the studio’s collection of backdrops.

Interested in learning more about what the studio has to offer? Click on the following links to jump to the studio’s portfolio of images, and download a digital copy of the studio’s Magazine and Style Guide to learn how to prepare for your photoshoot:

Link to the studio’s portfolio.

Link to the studio’s Free Magazine and Style Guide.

Backdrops for Photoshoots

The Backdrop Project

A photograph is not made in the camera but on either side of it.

-Edward Steichen
I’m happily at work on backdrop number six. This is when I began feeling a little more in the groove and carefree with my painting technique.

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.

The backdrops are painted on both sides to maximize the available color options to complement the wardrobe selections for photoshoots.

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.

The studio has five distinct areas for capturing portraits with natural light,strobes and even a mix of both. The space is designed for maximum flexibility so that we can make beautiful images together. Every photoshoot is a collaboration and a unique experience.

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.

Yours truly working on the “vivid gold” backdrop. The “Old Masters” brown and black backdrop is hanging to the left and it is painted cerulean blue on the reverse side.

Link to the studio’s portfolio.

Link to the studio’s Free Magazine and Style Guide.