Solid colored backgrounds are great when shooting people because they let you isolate your subject, and since they come in different colors they are very versatile – if you have enough money to buy every color. I already showed you in this YouTube video that gray is the most versatile color because you can turn it into any color with gels on your flash or strobe.
But even with all the possible combinations of colored backgrounds and gels – sometimes you are going to want more. A little something to jazz up that background and create some depth.
New photographers are taught that ,especially with a dark background, you should separate your subject from the background visually with a rim light or a hair light – so that you don’t wind up with a floating head. This too is a great technique, but it is just one more tool that you have to jazz up your backgrounds, and indeed, sometimes you want something a little more.
Another simple trick is to actually place an object or some kind of material between your subject and the background to create the feeling of depth. While this works, you do need to be careful that you aren’t making your shot too busy – and stealing attention from your subject.
Here are three simple tricks for creating depth in your portrait backgrounds.
Water in a Spray Bottle
One of my favorite tricks is to use WATER and a black seamless paper background. Get a spray bottle like this one that you can order on Amazon, or you can find one at a hardware store or sometimes even at a dollar store. The bigger the better because you do want the spray to travel.
Next, fill the bottle with water. I would recommend placing some old towels on the floor – especially if you don’t have a dedicated studio and you are shooting in your house.
Set up a flash behind your subject aimed back towards the camera. This technique works with speedlights, pocket flashes, and studio strobes like the Interfit honey Badgers that I wrote about in this post. I generally place my strobe low and aim up towards my subject’s head. You can experiment with different placements to get different looks – even including the flash in your photo if you like it.
Watch the VIDEO…
Now you will need an assistant, or you can use a wireless remote control and place your camera on a tripod. Compose your shot – get your subject set up the way you want them – begin spraying the water, and then shoot.
This is where some of you want to ask: how powerful should the backlight be? It’s completely up to you, AND it will depend on the color gel that you’re using. In the video at the top of the page, you can see the shot that I did during a live demonstration in Las Vegas that had no gel and the back light dialed up to almost full power. Then I did the same setup with the flash turned down to just below half power. Check out both final versions here. Experiment – there is no right or wrong – it is a matter of what looks best to you.
The same goes with color. Here’s the difference with the flash turned up and the flash turned down.
The possibilities are endless. I should also point out to you that the closer the spray is to the model, the more detail and shape you’ll see in the water drops. The further the spray is from the model, the more the drops soften and blend together. This is an effect that is controlled by depth of field.
Here is a shot done on a gray background instead of black with an orange gel added to the mix.
The key word is EXPERIMENT. Try using a wide spray path. Try using a narrow spray path. Try shooting as the last bit of the spray is falling out of frame.
Try using a strobe aimed at your black background with one color gel and then a second strobe aimed back towards your camera with a different colored gel for the water – the possibilities are really only limited by YOUR imagination.
Okay – so I promised you three tricks so I owe you two more.
If you don’t want to spray water or don’t have a spray bottle handy, hair spray works really well. Cheaper the better. I use good ole fashioned AquaNet because you can get a big can for less than three dollars. I still recommend covering the floor with towels or even a cheap plastic paint drop cloth that you can just dispose of after your shoot.
And the third trick is to use spray smoke. You can purchase this online for about $12.00 per can and it works much better than an actual smoke machine.
The product name is Atmosphere Aerosol and while it is Non-toxic, Non-irritating and Ozone safe – it is listed as extremely flammable and you should not use it in an enclosed space near a heater or open flame. A single 8 oz can goes a long way and with a little practice can give you lots of options.
If you have access to a smoke machine – that is definitely an option, but my experience has been that smoke machines tend to put out a lot of smoke very quickly and it is such harder to control than the Atmosphere Aerosol.
I know I said three tricks – but hey – good photographers underpromise and over deliver. Remember that plastic drop cloth I mentioned as an alternative for towels to catch your water or hair spray? Plastic drop cloths do cool things with light when placed between your subject and background, and depending on your placement and depth field – you can create a ton of variations. I’ll show you more in a future blog post.
As always, I hope that gives you some ideas, so take this idea and run with it – go practice and show me what you come up with.
Until next time, Please hit that thumbs up and subscribe so that you don’t miss any videos and don’t keep all this cool stuff to yourself – please share it with your photography friends. Remember – photography is not a competition – its a passion to be shared.
Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot. So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting.