Thursday, December 10, 2009

White Seamless Paper Tutorial

Another year of experience and wisdom shined on me this week...

No, actually I had a birthday and my wonderful girlfriend bought me two new seamless paper backgrounds.  I have been wanting these for so long, but have just been to cheap to buy them for myself.  As a photographer though, these are totally invaluable when it comes to shooting portraits and good quality product shots.

For the longest time I have wanted to be able to produce full length portraits on a white high key background but to get these, you really need a roll of seamless paper (and space).  I am now the proud owner of a roll of Savage Super White and Black paper backgrounds.  Each one is roughly 36 feet long, which is more than long enough to give me a full sweep to photograph full length portraits on.  The extra length will come in handy; when they get dirty I can simply tear off the worn piece and pull down fresh, clean paper.

I recently did a portrait session with my girlfriend's daughter on the white seamless and had an absolute blast!  The thing I was most proud about was setting up all of my lights and having the power settings accurate on the first shot.  I'm pretty familiar with my trusty Nikon Speed Lights at this point but having never done this before, it was quite fulfilling to nail the lighting on the first go ...that never happens!

Since this technique seems to be somewhat elusive for a lot of folks, I thought I'd share my technique on this shoot.

To setup the roll of paper, I used a cheap background kit which consists of two stands and a cross bar that is adjustable from roughly 6 feet to 9 feet.  I slid the roll of paper on the cross bar and used A Clamps (A Clamps are a very useful tool in the photographer's gear bag ...and they're cheap!) from Home Depot to secure the roll on the bar.  Then I pulled down the length of paper I thought I would need and used gaffer's tape to secure the ends to the ground.  The reason I used gaffer's tape rather than another version is that it sticks well, but doesn't leave a residue and won't pull the finish off your floor or the paper.

After setting up the paper, I started with the background lights.  Generally when going for a high key (or blown white) background I've found that its best to have these lights about 2 stops stronger than your key light.  So I took 2 Nikon SB-600's (one on either side of the background) and placed them about 3 feet away from the background.  I pointed each one just a little past center to get an even wash of light.  I adjusted the flashes' power setting to about 1/4, then I added Honl gobo's to each one so that the light wouldn't spill forward on my subject.

For the key light, I used my DIY Beauty Dish with an SB-800 on a stand boomed above the model and on camera axis.  The reason I used the Beauty Dish was that I wanted a "punchy" light that was somewhat soft but not super soft.  My model has exceptionally good skin so I knew I could get away with this kind of light.  Another reason I used the Beauty Dish was it takes up less space than a large softbox or open umbrella.  My studio is my downstairs living room so I'm somewhat limited on space.  The SB-800 was set at 1/8 power.  I knew I wanted a fast recycle time with my lights for this kind of shoot so I chose 1/8 power because it will let me fire my SB-800 pretty much as fast as I want.  To make sure I was getting enough light on my model, I just opened up the aperture to f/5.6.  With stronger lights you can get away with f/8 or f/11 and I probably could have gotten f/8 with my speedlights, but after taking a test shot, I decided f/5.6 was giving me enough depth of field on subject.  Since I was shooting in a controlled environment and the only light contributing to my shot was the light I was providing, I set my shutter speed to my D300's fastest native flash sync speed which is 1/250 sec.  This ensured that no ambient light contributed to my shot.

I wanted to produce a "beauty light" type of lighting so I chose a clamshell method which is also known as the 'over-and-under' method, meaning that my key light was up above the model on camera axis, then I placed a fill light below my camera on camera axis.  For this fill light, I used another SB-800 in a Lumiquest SBIII.  The Lumiquest SBIII is a small softbox for speed lights that kind of emulates the light of my beauty dish when used in close.  Its not too soft, but its not a hard light either.  I set the power on this light to one stop below my key light at 1/16 power.  The reason I went with a lower power is I wanted to reduce the shadow under the model's chin but not eliminate it.  This is actually pretty subjective so you can really dial the power of this light in, take a test shot and decide where you want it ratio wise.  You could also use a reflector as opposed to another light, but since I knew I would be doing full length body shots, I didn't think the reflector would throw back up enough light.

Normally I shoot with Nikon CLS (Creative Light System) using my camera's built-in flash triggering system, but since I was using four lights, I thought it would just be easier to use my Cyber Sync Flash Triggers to trigger my flashes.  The only catch with this is, you have to dial the power settings in manually at each flash.  Which by now, I've become pretty accustomed to this so its no big deal.  If I thought I would be changing the power settings a lot, I would have used CLS because its a pain to run around to each light, but since this was a studio type session, I just got my lights dialed in where I wanted them and banged away.

I know from this lengthy post it seems like it took a long time to do all of this, but honestly I had the seamless paper background and all of my lights setup in about 30 mins.

With everything setup I was ready for my model.  She stepped in and I took a few shots to check to see if the positioning of my lights was how I wanted them.  Everything was good to go, so I started motoring off the shots.

Another good thing about a lighting setup like this is that your model can actually move around quite a bit and you will still get good, evenly exposed shots.  Even still, I usually will point out a spot on the ground that I want my model to stand on just to be safe.

This paper background is a 53" wide roll.  Its just about perfect for single person shots, but I still had to clean up the sides in Photoshop on the full length shots.  I would prefer a wider roll, but I just don't have the space in my living room studio to setup a 9 foot roll.  No worries, though.  I didn't have to do very much in post to get these shots to look good, so I didn't mind the minimal effort of cleaning up the sides.

In this last photo, you can see my setup (I zoomed back on this a bit to show the lighting setup) and my absolutely gorgeous living room. 

I can't tell you how much fun this shoot was for me, and I plan on doing a lot more in the future.  I'll have to experiment with the black roll next.  FWIW, these rolls of paper are much cheaper than you think and you get a cheap background kit for around $150 US.  So if these types of shots interest you and you have the space, run out and pick you up a roll or two, or three, or four, or five.

For more info on shooting on white seamless backgrounds, check out this awesome tutorial by Zack Arias



Rob Metzger said...

John,thanks for taking time to post this. I just figured out why my shots don't look like yours. I need more light. The placement is the missing piece I haven't been able to achieve yet. So great post and thanks for the setup photo. I did not look at your living room area of the photo :)


Anonymous said...

wow you were't kidding when you said it was cramped at the new crib. I have huge seamless paper but no stands or space :( Working on it. Good stuff John!

~ Joey

Schorschi said...

If your key light is on 1/8 power inside a beauty dish (which eats considerable amounts of light, especially with a speedlite), and at f/5.6, I wonder what ISO you shot at? 400? 800?

John said...


These were all shot at ISO 200, that BD doesn't eat up as much light as you would think, maybe a stop and 1/2. The trick is, that light wasn't more than a foot or so away from the model's head when shooting.