Everybody loves a bargain – especially when you don’t have to sacrifice quality in the process.
I want to show you a simple, easy-to-find and inexpensive material that makes a great portrait background that’s also available in loads of different colors. I can even show you how you can use it as a full length background in a pinch and also how to build a very inexpensive and portable background stand.
I frequently visit my local fabric store looking for interesting fabrics or vinyls that I can wrap around a model to create something that looks like a cool outfit or a hat. I also get one of my favorite backgrounds at the local fabric store. This material is inexpensive enough that I can afford to own it in a bunch of different colors.
The material is called velour. It only comes in 60″ widths, which means a 5ft or 1.5m wide background. You buy it by the yard, so generally when I purchase a new color, I get three yards – that’s 9 ft or just under 3m, but if you want to be able to squeeze out an occasional full length shot be sure to get 4 yards, which is 12 ft or just over 3.5m.
It is important to know that there are several different types of velour and often, the names are different depending on the manufacturer. So instead of telling you all the different names, let me just explain that some velour is really smooth and has very little texture while others have a subtle texture. For some, you can brush this texture with your hand and see the tongs change.
Both of these are options are okay depending on how you intend to use them. If you are able to separate your subject from the background and use depth of field to your advantage, then it doesn’t matter at all if the velour has a little texture. If you are in a very tight space and need to have your subject sit directly in front of the background, you will see a hint of the texture. Some people will like this, others will find it objectionable. There is no right or wrong.
Depending on the brand and the amount of texture, velour routinely costs between $5 to $12 a yard. I always look for sales so that I am getting it between five or six bucks a yard. That way, my portrait background is costing less than 20 dollars for a really nice and versatile background.
You can check out Amazon.com for great prices on the different types of velour. Most of the stores have very accurate images to give you a sense of how much texture their version of the material has.
And before I forget, one of the best features about this material: you can fold it up and it doesn’t wrinkle! I keep mine folded and when I open it up, it is ready to go. I don’t need to iron or steam it, and if you get it a little dirty, it is machine washable in cold water.
How to hang a velour backdrop
In my home studio, I have bars permanently mounted so that I can hang the velour quickly. Remember, later on I will show you how you can make an inexpensive and very portable background stand for using the velour and even short paper background rolls.
I hang the material in three steps.
- Using spring clamps, I stretch it on the top bar with one clamp on each side.
- Then I have a piece of half inch electrical conduit that weighs about 5lbs that I clip at the bottom. Now you can see that the background isn’t smooth. The trick here is not to try and stretch it tighter; you actually want to make it looser.
- The third step is to simply go back to the top. Release one of the clamps and let the backdrop slide down until it is smooth, then I re-clamp and it’s good to go.
If I am going to do a full-length shot, I obviously don’t want to see the pipe so I’ll go ahead and clamp the pipe behind the material and just smooth the rest of the velour out on the floor in front.
Since the material will slip and slide when somebody walks on it, I usually tape it down with some gaffers tape. If you can’t afford gaffers tape, duct tape works just fine. Just don’t leave the tape on the material for days at a time because it will leave adhesive residue on the material that won’t come off easily.
In this series of photos, I have my subject placed about 4 feet in front of the material:
You can see how the different colors make great portrait backgrounds. You can get this material in the standard white, black and gray and just about any other color you want. The lighting set-up here is the DIY LED lighting kit I built in this video.
Now here is where you can start to have some fun with this material. If we place a strobe behind the material – it can be a monolight or a speedlight- and we aim it towards the subject, we can get effects like these by varying the height and power of the flash:
Remember, there is no right or wrong, so experiment and practice to find the combination that you like the most.
But I’m not done there. If you want to go a little old school with your background, you can hang the velour sideways and let it droop in the middle. Then if you add a strobe on the floor between the model and the background – and aim it up, you can get this type of effect:
Again, experiment. You can light the material from the bottom, the side, the top – the possibilities are almost endless.
I did mention that you can use the velour for full length shots in a pinch. The challenge here is that since the material is only 5 feet wide, you have to keep your subject fairly close to the background.
Here is an example of a three quarter length shot – also with the LED lights:
Here is a full length shot on dark red velour:
If we add a strobe behind the material like I showed you with the portraits, we can get looks like these:
DIY Portable Background Stand
Ok, I promised you an inexpensive and portable background stand that works great with this velour material.
I made my portable background stand from 1in PVC piping for a total cost of about 25 dollars and less than one hour of build time. I strongly recommend not using anything smaller than 1in as that will make it extremely flimsy and it probably won’t stay upright with the weight of the material. If you don’t intend to take your stand off location, moving up to 1 1/2″ pipe will make it extremely sturdy.
I got all my parts at the local Home Depot, and if you are nice to the employees there they will do the cuts for you – the PVC pipe comes in 10 foot lengths.
The key to building a portable background stand is to make sure that none of the parts are longer than 38″ or 1 meter so that it can easily be stored and carried in a duffle bag.
4 pieces that are 38″ long to make the uprights of the stand
6 pieces of 36″ to make the three cross bars of the stand
2 pieces at 6″ to lift the bottom crossbar
4 pieces at 18″ to make the legs of the stand
4 caps for the legs
3 couplers for the cross bars
2 elbows for the top cross bar
***I also bought 6 spring clamps while I was at Home Depot that I will keep in the bag to use for attaching the background material
I have highlighted the sections above that I glued together so that I don’t have 31 pieces to assemble every time I want to use it – this way there are only 14 pieces that come out of the bag and they go together easily.
A small tap will usually seat the pipe properly. If you are having trouble getting the pipes to fit and then come apart without a struggle, a little sanding paper will allow you to take just enough plastic off to allow for a better fit.
I’ve sped the video below up, but you can see the unit goes together with very little effort.
I assemble it laying flat and then stand it up. It takes me less than two minutes to assemble my portable background stand and another minute to hang the backdrop. Notice that I attach the backdrop while the stand is laying down and then lift it upright and turn the legs to support the unit.
And when I am done, it all comes apart and fits in this 40″ x 16″ duffel bag that I got on sale for twenty bucks at Amazon.com.
So there you have it. An inexpensive and durable material that you can use for portrait backgrounds and an easy to build portable background stand.
I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman