How about a DIY portrait background that will save you money and give you infinite creative possibilities?
A portrait should NEVER be about the background, however, the background can make or break the shot. My favorite solid background color is gray, because with gels I can make it just about any color I want. But what about when you want some texture or design in your portrait background? Sure you can add a new background in Photoshop which adds a lot of time to the process or you can go on location but that puts you at the mercy of Mother Nature.
So the practical question is how many portrait backgrounds can you afford to buy? Hand painted portrait backgrounds are expensive. Printed backgrounds are all the craze right now because they can be purchased for less than a hundred dollars which is very reasonable, but how many photographs are you going to take with the same background? You can vary the look of your hand painted or printed backgrounds with creative use of depth of field and also add colored gels to get variations, but you are limited in options and then you’re just stuck with an expensive background that you don’t want to over use.
Sure – you might be able to sell it at a loss – or trade it with another photographer so that they can create shots that look just like yours.
A big TV. That’s right – in my case a 65” 4K LED TV mounted on an adjustable stand with wheels so that I can easily move it around. Now before you call me crazy and say this is way too expensive… stay tuned until the end – its not as expensive as you think – in fact – it has a much higher return on investment than those printed backgrounds.
Digital DIY Portrait Backgrounds
This is the real beauty behind this concept. You can create your own backgrounds in Photoshop or even by photographing random textures and designs that you see as you are out and about with your camera. And since you will generally want the background to be a bit soft – to simulate shallow depth of field – you can easily use smartphone images to create your backgrounds – which means you can be collecting backgrounds even without your digital camera gear.
If I am looking for unique patterns or textures that I don’t have in my library, my go-to sources are stock photography sites like Shutterstock.com, Dreamstime.com or DepositPhotos.com. These sites let me purchase rights to an image or graphic for a few bucks each and with a little creative effort, I can use and re-use a background many different times.
So instead of being limited by what I can do to a physical background with colored gels – I now have so many more possibilities to re-purpose – without re-using the exact same background.
I set-up the lighting for these diy portrait background shots no differently than I would have if I was using one of my physical backgrounds – the only real difference is that I didn’t need to light the background.
My subject is generally placed three to five feet in front of the tv screen. See the video above for details
A lot of people have asked me if I ran into problems with reflections from the TV. The answer is no – because my stand allows me to tilt the screen down and since my lights are almost always slightly above my subject or higher – this is more than enough to compensate. I did run into a few scenarios where I also angled the tv slightly to the left or right to avoid a reflection. Remember, from the cameras perspective – it can’t tell the background is tilted or angled.
The biggest change to the shooting set-up compared to using physical portrait backgrounds is that the TV is a constant ambient light source, which means that it isn’t as bright as your speed lights or studio strobes. If you routinely shoot with constant light sources like LED’s then this isn’t an issue.
If you shoot with strobes it means that you will shoot at slower shutter speeds than the usual 1/250th of a second that most cameras are designed to synchronize with flash. This also insures that you won’t encounter banding from the refresh rate of the television.
Here is an example that was shot at ISO200 with a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second and an aperture of F3.2 so that I could have both eyes in focus. Shooting portraits, you have very little subject movement and with the image stabilization that is available in most camera brands today, 1/50th of a second is very doable for hand holding a portrait shot.
Also, I am lighting my subject with strobes – which means the slower shutter speeds don’t impact the clarity of my subject at all. The worst case scenario if my shutter speed were too slow is that I could see some ghosting along the edges of my subject – but my subject would still be in focus.
You can also use this as a creative advantage. . .
This shot was done at 1/30th of a second at ISO320.
By lowering my shutter speed to 1/15th of a second, placing the camera on a tripod and jerking it from side to side as I fired the shutter – I can use an effect called shutter drag to create this motion blur – in camera.
While we are talking about creative options… notice the blue reflection in the sunglasses? That was created by placing a white Walmart reflector in front of my subject. The reflector is angled up and then using rim lights place behind her with blue gels aimed at the white board, I get the blue rim lighting on her jaw and the blue color reflected back into the sunglasses.
Change the background on the TV and change the color gels to orange and you can get a result like this one.
I always talk about the idea of “work your shot” – you know – trying different variations and not assuming your first idea is the best idea.
This shot that I showed you earlier started with a test shot using this bokeh background – and I simply didn’t like the look.
Then I went with this golden bokeh image that you see below and some yellow tulle material wrapped around her head…
…and then I settled in on the mixed colors with the red, purple and blue.
For this shot I had an image on the TV but also used a piece of ruffled tulle and waved it behind my subject – in front of the tv during a 1/13th of a second exposure. Remember – I shot with strobes so I knew my subject would be tack sharp. I had the camera on a tripod and shot with a wireless controller as I waved the material. The backlighting combined with the slow shutter speed gave me this awesome feeling of movement from ruffled tulle.
I should also point out that with this tv set-up my go-to lens is the M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8 from Olympus which is a full frame equivalent of 150mms. I prefer the slightly longer focal length given the limited size of the background – but you can make this technique work really well if you are a full frame shooter using a 70-200mm zoom or even a 100mm Macro. A shorter lens like a full frame 85mm or on Micro 4/3rds a 45mm will work – you just need to have your subject closer to the tv.
Also, the way that I manage the images on the screen is to place my laptop on the shelf under the TV. I keep all of the backgrounds in a Dropbox folder so that I can add to the folder easily from any of my computers and I simply use the Mac Preview App to scroll through the images and select which one I want to use. You could use any software that has image browsing capabilities and the ability to view an image full screen. My laptop also has Photoshop on it so that I can alter the color scheme of any image while I am in the studio shooting.
Oh and one last thing – after you select your image – be sure to move the curser all the way to a corner otherwise you will be retouching it out of the final image. Been there – done – that. You can thank me later!
This DIY portrait background technique is less expensive than you think. I purchased the TV and stand on Amazon almost a year ago. I paid $599.00 for the 65” TV and $64.99 for the 32 to 70 Inch Mobile TV Cart Universal Flat Screen Rolling TV Stand. So that is less than $665.00.
Since then, TV prices have come down considerably and many of you will be able to do this with even bigger screens at a more affordable price.
A 53” wide seamless paper background averages about $32.00. A 6 foot wide printed background with light blue bokeh sells for $54.00 and it is a challenge to repurpose. A 5’ wide hand painted canvas background which is truly beautiful sells for $300.00 – so you do the math – it doesn’t take long as we accumulate backgrounds with the goal of adding variety to spend much more than this electronic digital background set-up.
You see the possibilities are truly endless. You are only limited by your own imagination. If you are not willing to experiment and fail and solve problems – you will not develop a creative skillset. Embrace failure.
So are diy portrait backgrounds for you? Only can you can decide that. For any photographer who is looking to do portrait photography as a way of generating income, the return on investment for a set-up like this is extremely good because of the endless possibilities it offers, not to mention that you don’t have to hang it from stands, or a ceiling like you do regular backgrounds. And if you shoot in your home it could double as your family TV.
If you have a larger vehicle – you could take this set-up on location since newer tv’s are very thin and lightweight and you can purchase mounts from companies like TetherTools that would allow you to mount the TV on a c-stand.
And in case you are wondering – there is nothing to stop you from mounting the TV sideways of you prefer vertical portrait backgrounds.
Ultimately I hope this gets you thinking and inspires you to think outside the box and push your creative boundaries. So please – take this idea and run with it – go create and show me what you come up with.
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 – it’s your NEXT shot!