There are two paths to getting a portrait with a pure white background—you can spend far too much time in Photoshop or you can learn to shoot white seamless. My preference, of course, is to spend my time behind my camera rather than in front of my computer. Shooting white seamless starts with an understanding of how to create a seamless set and then knowing how to independently light the set and the subject.
Creating Your White Seamless Set
- Lots of space—you will want to have as much room as possible. Shooting at home or the office, where the ceilings are low and the walls are tight, is not an optimal situation. While you can make tight spaces work, it will be harder. For me, I consider a space 15’ wide by 30’ long to be a minimum. If I can get 20’ by 40’ or more, I’m happier. Having the space to spread out will mean that your lighting can be controlled more precisely as unwanted bounces off nearby surfaces will be minimized. Also, look for a ceiling height of at least 10’ (12’ or more is better). For this shoot, I literally set up shop in a school gymnasium.
- Background—you will need: two light stands (9’ or so is a good size — like this one or this one that folds flat), two Super clamps attached to the top of the light stands, a roll of white seamless paper (107″/9′ is a typical width), a long pole to support the roll of seamless (a wood clothes rod works fine), and two A-clamps to keep the paper from unrolling. You can see a detail of the assembly below. Between shoots, store the seamless paper on its end so that you don’t create wrinkles. Having a perfectly smooth background will minimize your work. If you must use a wall or a white bedsheet rather than a roll of seamless paper, plan on scrubbing the little shadows out of the background in Photoshop.
- Flags—you will need a way to keep the background lights from spilling onto your subject directly. If you are shooting Speedlites, you can tape large black cards to the camera-side of the flash heads. The black side of a large Rogue FlashBender works well for this too. If you are shooting strobes, then you’ll want to use a large sheet of foam core to block the light. In the photo below, you can see on the left side how the foam core blocks the light spilling sideways out of the strobe. Without the foam core flag, this light would have flown directly onto my model.
- Floor boards –if you are going to shoot full length shots, you’ll want to use thrifty panel board (aka: white tile board) as a way to minimize footprints on your seamless paper. It also acts as a horizontal fill card and creates a cool reflection of your subject. You will find 4’ x 8’ sheets of thrifty board in the paneling departments at home improvement stores. Avoid the grooved and textured boards. You want the ones with the smooth, painted surface. Expect to pay less than $15 per sheet. For larger group shots, use multiple boards and set them so that the ones closer to the camera overlap the board behind. This hides the edge from the camera. (Thanks to my friend Zack Arias for sharing this technique on his blog.)
Lighting White Seamless
The key to lighting white seamless is to light the background and the subject independently of each other. In terms of lighting the background, you will want to have at least two lights. For your subject, you will want to have one light and a large reflector or two lights. You can use Speedlites, but the job will be easier with the additional power that strobes provide. For this shoot, I used three Einstein E640 monolights, a 48” softbox, and a large foam core vee-flat.
The background lights should be set up on each side of the seamless so that they angle in at about 45º. This is why a wider space is handy—the lights are about 3’ from the edge of the 9’ wide seamless, for a total width of 15’. The idea is that you want to cross-light the background so that the coverage is very even. It’s typical to have the stands for the background lights even with or slightly behind the position of your subject.
As for the light on your subject, you can use any lighting style that you like—soft light, hard light, etc. Generally, soft light is seen as more congruous with a white background than hard light. If you have only one flash for your subject, then try to use a large modifier (like the Apollo Orb softbox or a 60″ convertible umbrella) on that flash so that the light wraps around your subject. As you can see in the set shot above, I pushed in a large vee-flat of foam core on the right to act as a giant fill card. Without the fill panel, as you can see below, the shadows on the off-light side were too harsh. If you have two lights for your subject, then you can use one as the key light and the other to control the contrast of the fill.
Again, the key is to understand that you must light the background and your subject independently. Keep a good bit of separation between the two. Consider 6’ to be a minimum. If the subject is too close to the background, then light will flare around the edges of the subject. A bit of this flare can be creative. Too much flare is a sign of inexperience. For this shoot, I had a 10’ gap between my model and the seamless.
Now that you have the background lit independently of the subject, the final step is to set the power on each light system. I prefer to set the lighting on my subject first based on the aperture I’ve chosen to create the depth of field that I want. Then, I adjust the power on the background. For pure white, the power of the background lights should be 1.5 brighter than the light on your subject.
If you have a hand-held flash meter (like the Sekonic L-308S), this is a good time to use it. Put the meter in front of your subject’s face and take a reading. Let’s say that it says “f/8.” Now, place the meter on the background and adjust the flash power until it reads f/13.
If you don’t have a flash meter, dial the background power up slowly until the highlight warning on your camera LCD begins to flash. Then check the histogram to make sure that there is a spike on the right edge. These are both indications that portions of the shot are blowing out to pure white—which is exactly what you are after.
The idea on the background light is that you want just enough power to make it appear white and no more. If the background lights are too bright, then the excess light will wrap around your subject and the shot will lose contrast. Compare the center panel of the photo below to the right panel—where I turned the power on my background lights up so that they were three stops bighter than the light on my model. See how the right panel appears a bit washed out? This reduced contrast is from too much background light flying into my lens.
Conversely, if the background lights are too dim, then the background will appear as a shade of grey. This is bad only since we’re shooting a white seamless here. Underexposing the background means that you have to spend time in Photoshop to extract the subject off of the grey background. Of course, when you want to add tone to your background, turning the power of the lights down until you get the shade of grey that you want is much faster than changing out the background paper. In the photo below, the left panel shows what the background looked like when it metered at the same power as the light on my model.
Another way to check your lighting is to shoot a series of test shots in which you turn off all the lights and then turn on the groups individually. This will give you a good look at what each of the lights is and is not doing. Click on the photo below to see a larger panel. By the way, this shutting-the-lights-off workflow is so important to me that I try to remember to do it on all my shoots.
Shooting White Seamless
This entire shoot happened in Manual mode—the monolights because they only have a manual mode and the camera because I set it that way. Even if I was shooting Speedlites, I would have shot them in Manual rather than ETTL/ITTL to keep the light consistent throughout the shoot. Once I find the proper exposure—based around the aperture I need to create the depth of field that I want—I can lock the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO by switching my camera into Manual mode. The huge advantage of this is that the exposure will be consistent from frame to frame. Since the relationship of the lights to my model is not changing—because she is not moving around—I can push my camera in close or pull it out far without changing camera settings. All of the photos for this article where shot at the same camera settings: 1/160”, f/8, ISO 200.
Once you have done all the work of setting up the lighting and working out the exposure, make it a practice to create many different compositions with your camera. Even if what you think you want is a full-length, vertical shot, don’t be afraid to shoot horizontal close-ups as well (like the one below). The great advantage of lighting the white seamless properly is that, once everything is dialed in, you can shoot from a wide range of positions without having to change the lights or the settings on your camera.
Expanding the Frame in Photoshop
Regardless of your final composition (vertical or horizontal), fill your viewfinder with as much of the subject as you can. Specifically, if you know that you want a wide image with the subject appearing only on the right, then shoot a tight vertical shot of the subject. Later, in Photoshop, you can expand the canvas to create more space on the left. This way, will have maximized the details that the camera recorded of the subject.
This article was excerpted from my forthcoming book Light and Lighting — to be published this fall by Peachpit Press. You can check it out here on Amazon.