Seamless paper backgrounds are a staple item for both amateur and professional photographers. They are versatile, reusable and affordable. Yet, I find it surprising how many photographers don’t take care of them and dispose of them much sooner than needed. Here are 10 tips for making your backgrounds last and two awesome DIY projects. One will help you weigh down the bottom of your background so it doesn’t curl when you unroll it and the other is a super affordable way to protect and store your backgrounds to keep them from buckling and to extend their life.
I purchased my first seamless paper background in 1976. Let me tell you, for a young 16-year-old photographer, it was the coolest background ever! In case you’re wondering, it was a 107” #20 Black Savage backdrop. More than 40 years later, I still use Savage Paper Backdrops as my go-to brand and choice for studio backgrounds.
Paper backdrops are a popular background solution because they are available in a huge assortment of colors, plus with gels and lighting there is an almost infinite number of possibilities. Another bonus to seamless paper backgrounds is the price. They are more affordable than equivalent-sized cloth or painted backgrounds. That doesn’t mean you should think of them as cheap or disposable. They are, in fact, just the opposite. Seamless paper backdrops are made to be used over and over and with proper care and maintenance they can last for years.
In case you haven’t already seen them, I have written blog posts in the past about some great DIY Background options for portraits as well as an awesome DIY Background Holder. I also have a video explaining why GRAY is my favorite background color – and that’s not as boring as it sounds.
While the DIY solutions are great for simple portraits, nothing beats a seamless paper backdrop for versatility. Also, full disclosure: I mention Savage Brand Backgrounds because I really have used them for over 40 years. I have tried the cheaper brands and the paper is thinner and wears much faster, not to mention that the colors are not consistent and they do fade. And to be clear: I am not being paid to say that.
Background Size Options
This first thing to consider is what is the best size for your needs. This is going to depend on the type of photography you are doing and the amount of space that you have to work in. You wouldn’t just randomly pick a light modifier before you shoot. You select the modifier that is going to give you the kind of light you are looking for and hence the best outcome. Selecting a background should be no different.
You can get very thin rolls that are great for tabletop and product photography that are 26 in wide by 36 ft long. 36 ft is a lot of background, so if you are only doing occasional product or tabletop shots, you may want to consider foam board, poster board, or even cloth background options.
Headshots and Three Quarter length shots
A great size for shooting portraits is the 53” x 36 ft roll. This is just under 4.5 ft wide and it’s great for shooting kids, headshots and three quarter length shots. You do have to pay attention when you shoot three quarter length shots, though. If you have your subject extend their arms too far – they will be off the background. Also remember: the farther away from your subject that you place the background, the smaller it becomes in relationship to your subject. So for my money, the 53” width is for headshots or portraits only.
The most common size found in studios is the 107” x 36 ft roll. This gives you a background that is just under 9 feet wide and long enough to roll out and have your subjects stand on it, lay down on it, or even jump on it. It works great for full-body shots and even small groups.
Other background options
Savage also sells rolls that are 107” x 150 ft. Yes – 150 ft which is a monster roll and wickedly heavy – but if you do a lot of work with seamless and find yourself replacing your backgrounds often – this is a viable solution. Some Savage colors are also available in 86” x 36 ft and 140” x 105 ft.
I prefer to hang my backdrops from the ceiling in my studio. Remember, my home studio that I walked you through in this blog post only has 8 ft ceilings, so it is important to me to get the backdrops as tight to the ceiling as possible If you have higher ceilings, you can easily mount the backgrounds on a wall.
If you need your set-up to be portable, you can mount your background on stands and a crossbar. WARNING: unless you want to simply destroy your paper backgrounds and always be fighting with the stands, don’t buy a cheap background stand set. A 107” x 36 ft seamless roll weighs 15lbs. The 150 ft roll weighs 49lbs. If you are going to use these big rolls on a portable setup you need to spend a few extra dollars and buy a heavy duty set-up. Don’t think that using two light stands and a homemade crossbar is a good idea for the big rolls.
The 53” rolls only weigh 6lbs, so you can work with a much lighter setup and not run into problems. The DIY PVC stand that I mention in this article works great for the short rolls.
10 Tips for Making your Photography Backgrounds Last
These are tips that I have learned the hard way by damaging backgrounds. I assure you, they are worth the little bit of effort they require.
1. NEVER roll a seamless background out over carpet
The ability to roll out a seamless background and have your subject stand on it is a big part of what makes these backdrops so useful. This works great on hard, even flooring. If you’re shooting space is carpeted, you need to place a hard surface like a piece of plywood or plexiglass between the paper and the carpet. Otherwise, the paper will pucker and crease – not to mention that the heels of your model’s shoes will poke right through the paper if it’s not on a hard surface.
2. A-Clamps are the best
Even if you have a roller system that prevents the backgrounds from unrolling, A-Clamps are the most important accessory for your backgrounds. Don’t buy them from a photo supplier; these are not real photography gear. Get the 6” A-Clamps at Amazon. If you’re smart, make it a habit to attach them to your crossbar BEFORE you unravel the seamless. I can’t tell you how many times I have pulled a seamless down only to realize that I forgot to grab the a-clamps and of course the weight of the seamless just keeps pulling the roll off the bar. Then you have to roll it back up – go and get your A-Clamps and start all over again and by this time you have probably creased part of the background.
3. DON’T TREAD ON ME
Avoid walking on the seamless. Your model can, but you and your assistants should not! If you want your seamless to last, you can’t cut corners on this one. When I am setting up my seamless rolls and need to place light stands or props on the seamless, I always remove my shoes and only walk on the paper in my socks. If you don’t want to remove your shoes, you can get removable shoe covers. These covers are disposable, but in most cases you could use them many times over. You can purchase 50 pairs of them for less than ten dollars on Amazon. When it comes to my models walking on my paper backgrounds, I always take a minute and wipe down the soles of their shoes while they are in the makeup chair and a place a small bathroom throw rug right at the edge of the paper and ask them to wipe their feet before they step onto the background. Do be sure to throw the rug in the washer every so often so that it doesn’t collect dirt and transfer it back to the shoes.
4. Gaffer Tape is Your best Friend
Gaffer tape is something you should already have in your studio. Whenever you roll that seamless out for your model to stand on it, tape down the edges. When a paper seamless background is rolled out onto a smooth surface, it slides really easily. If you don’t tape it, you better have some really good liability insurance because you are placing your model at risk for a fall. Not to mention that Murphy’s law pretty much guarantees that your model’s high heel shoe will find the edge of the paper and tear it as she walks onto the set. BTW – DON’T USE DUCT TAPE! Gaffers tape has a blended resin and natural rubber compound that allows you to remove it without leaving all the adhesive on the paper. Duct tape is cheaper but it will destroy your background and leave adhesive residue on your floor.
5. Make the floor shine
A 4ft by 8ft piece of plexiglass or clear acrylic is a great way to give your floor a reflective quality. The 4×8 sheet is a bit tough to store in smaller studio spaces – but if you have the space – I highly recommend it.
6. Enlist an assistant
I can’t tell you how many times I have dropped or damaged a roll because I was in a hurry and trying to handle it by myself. If you have to work solo, take your time and don’t rush. Ideally, get some help with hanging, changing, and rolling up your backdrops. They’ll last longer and you’ll curse much less.
7. Keep them clean
I already told you how to prevent smudges and dirt on your backdrops but the reality is that it will still happen from time to time. White latex-free plastic erasers are great for removing a lot of smudges. These erasers are used for removing graphite on paper and drafting film and they are very soft and won’t damage the seamless paper. Just don’t rub real hard. Also helpful are simple Swiffer Duster cloths. I always wipe down the part of the seamless that my model was standing on before I roll it up and store it.
8. Use a straight edge and Recycle
When you are ready to cut off some of the roll because the end is worn beyond use, don’t use scissors, use a straight edge like a box cutter knife or a heavy-duty arts and crafts knife. Since the seamless paper is thick and has a curl – cutting it with scissors will always give you an uneven and random edge. I use two pieces of 1” by 4” by 10 ft lumber that you can purchase at a hardware store for less than ten dollars each. I place one under the seamless while I use the second one on top as a straightedge to guide my knife. This method also insures that you won’t scratch the surface of your studio floor.
9. Watch the humidity
This tip applies to pretty much everything photography; cameras, lenses and backgrounds. If you are a studio photographer it is important to monitor and control the humidity in your studio space. Humidity is not your friend, it can cause fungus on your lenses and sensors and it can cause your seamless backgrounds to buckle. You can purchase a simple humidity monitor for less than ten dollars. The ideal relative humidity is between 40 and 50 percent to prevent fungus. Don’t go too low with your humidity because you will run the risk of drying out the rubber and lubricants in your lenses. If you have a hard time with humidity in your shooting or storage space, check out my DIY storage tip at the bottom of the page.
10. Store them Vertically
Seamless paper backgrounds will always last longer if you store them standing up – vertically. If you store them hanging or even laying down, the cardboard cores will eventually begin to sag in the middle and then the paper buckles and becomes uneven. Whatever you do, don’t just lean them against the wall either. There are several inexpensive storage solutions available including a super easy and very effective seamless paper storage clip by Savage. BTW: storing them in the cardboard box that they were shipped in is not a great plan unless you are in a very low humidity environment. That corrugated cardboard that the box is made from will absorb moisture and cause more humidity inside the box.
DIY Background Helpers
The first of my two DIYs is a counterweight solution to stop the bottom of your seamless paper from curling when you hang it. Savage sells a Background Leader Bar which retails for $75.00 and comes with a 107” x 36 ft roll of white paper or they also sell a shorter version that is 4’ 8” and comes with a 53” roll of white seamless. Manfrotto also sells a Background Paper Counterweight that is two pieces and works on 4 ft or 9 ft rolls. It retails for $32.95.
My solution costs only $6.50 at your local Home Depot. Just purchase a 10 ft by 1 1/4” pvc pipe and two 1 1/4” end caps. Then cut off 8 inches so that you have a pipe that is 112” long. This will create a little overhang on each side of the seamless.
Then using a table saw with the blade set very low – cut a line 109” long. When I made my cuts I wiggled the pipe slightly so that the opening would be a bit wider than the blade – this makes it easier to insert the paper.
Then all you need to do is place the end caps on and your build is complete. You don’t even need to glue the end caps and if you want to paint it – go for it.
To attach the counterweight – you first need to make sure that you have a clean edge at the end of your seamless. It is important to have the edge straight and square with the sides otherwise your counterweight will hang crooked and cause the background to buckle.
If you are working with a brand new background – it already is square. If you are cutting a worn or dirty end off of an existing seamless, I have a very simple way to do it. Hang the background and make sure you have it hanging level. If you have ceiling mounts – that is easy. If you are using stand mounts – use a bubble level to be sure the roll is level. Then unravel the background just past the point where you wish to add the counterweight. Take a Sharpie Marker and just run it along the underside of the roll all the way across.
Then go ahead and roll the background out far enough that your line is on the floor or if you want, you can remove the background and place it on the floor. Using a sharp blade – cut along the line that was just drawn with the Sharpie. Fold back about one inch of seamless and press the fold down tight to make a clean stiff edge.
Then simply slide that edge into the groove that you cut on the PVC pipe. I use a few small pieces of gaffers tape to keep it in place as I go and then run a strip along the entire length over the groove where the paper has been inserted. Once you have done that, you are good to go. Re-hang your background or roll it up and you have a counterweight that is level and much less expensive than the machined metal options that are available online.
DIY Background Storage
I also promised you an easy DIY Storage tip for your seamless backgrounds. If you are going to keep your rolls out in the open – standing vertically of course – you should have a room with low humidity as I already mentioned. If you can’t control the humidity and if you can’t store your rolls vertically you can purchase 4” pipes to store them in. The common recommendation is 4” PVC pipes. I personally think this is a horrible solution. A 10ft length of 4” PVC pipe will cost you over $20.00 and that doesn’t include the end caps – not to mention that it weighs just over 20lbs. A better alternative is to purchase a 10 ft by 4” length of corrugated drain pipe for $7.21. Purchase two 4” solid snap end caps for $2.52 each. Then use a simple box cutter knife – cut off the bell end – it’s the bigger end. I measure my pipe to 109” and cut.
Slide your seamless roll into the plastic bag that it came with and then slide everything into the pipe. Add the snap caps on both ends and you have a durable airtight storage tube that only cost you $12.25 Now you can stack the rolls or stand them up and you have a protected and humidity free environment for your seamless. BTW: this solution weighs just 3lbs.
So there you have it: 10 important and helpful tips to make your seamless paper backgrounds last and two DIY projects to save you money in the process. I hope you found this useful. So until next time, go pick up that camera and shoot something because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!
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