I love white backgrounds for portraits, headshots, and beauty shots. Here, I’ll be walking you through a simple and quick technique to get a pure white background for portraits or product shots. It requires minimal gear, it’s portable, and you can use it in tight space. Read on and I’ll even show you an easy way to get the perfect exposure on both the background and your subject – without a light meter.
I’ll admit – when I was younger, I hated using a white background. I thought they were boring, old-fashioned and not at all creative. As I matured as a photographer, I realized that the real reason I hated the white backgrounds was because they were pure – a blank canvas if you will. That meant that I had to do amazing things with my subject in front of the camera. That is where my appreciation for psychology and its impact on great photography began.
The lighting challenge with a white background is this: if you put your subject directly in front of the white background, it won’t be recorded as pure white. That’s because it’s being lit by the same light as your subject. Since you are going to expose for your subject and the background is behind your subject, the inverse square law causes the white background to look gray. So in order to keep it white – really white – we have to light it.
Now if you have a dedicated studio space like mine, it is easy enough to mount two strobes, one on either side- in this case Paul C Buff DigiBee DB800s- and you have an evenly lit 9 foot wide white backdrop. That of course is much more than you need for a portrait, and that doesn’t help you much if you shoot portraits in your home or on location.
The good news is that you have options for location work and shooting in tight spaces. You can find a white wall or purchase a set of background stands and white seamless paper in 53” rolls. But then you still need to dedicate two lights to lighting the white background to make sure that it’s lit evenly.
You can try and get away with one light for the background, but if you are in close quarters, you probably won’t be able to get enough space between the light and the background. You’ll wind up with a gradient from the light falloff like you see here:
Which, by the way, is a nice lighting effect for some portraits… but we are talking about a pure white background now.
My solution is very simple. I use a Medium Photoflex White OctoDome.
This gives me a nice big background that allows me to comfortably shoot vertical or horizontal portraits and headshots and even do some shots cropped from the waist up. A big bonus to the Photoflex OctoDomes is the fact that they are only 16” deep, which really helps out if you are working in a tight space. The Medium OctoDome is 55″ in diameter and weighs only 4 pounds, so you don’t need a heavy duty stand to hold it if you are shooting indoors.
You can see above that I have my subject placed just in front of the Medium OctoDome and I am using an inexpensive shoot-through brolly umbrella as my main light on camera left. I have a Paul C Buff Digibee DB800 in each of the modifiers and I get a result like this with just the two lights:
If I add a simple Walmart reflector on camera right, I can add a little fill from the reflector, as shown on the right.
Now I know that for some of you the 55″ OctoDome is going to be too big for the space you have to work in, but you can make this technique work with a smaller modifier. Just to prove my point, here is a portrait that I shot using a Photoflex Medium sized softbox that is 24” x 32” and 17” deep as my background and a simple shoot-through umbrella as my main light:
I did this set-up in a kitchen with very little space. Both modifiers have 1 LumoPro 180R speedlight as a light source.
Remember that great photography requires great problem solving. While the smaller softbox is a bit limiting compared to the bigger OctoDome, you can still do some very nice work with it.
I promised that I would show you an easy way to get the perfect exposure for this set-up without a light meter. So let’s break this down…
We know that we want the background to be pure white and I like to shoot my studio portraits at an aperture between f/5.6 to f/8. There is very little value to shooting wide open in this instance, since there is no bokeh or detail in the background. It makes more sense to go with a nice sharp aperture that will also give you plenty of depth of field and keep both eyes in focus if you turn your subject’s face.
You can see in the below setup that I have my Medium OctoDome setup and I have my aperture set to f/6.3. My ISO is 64 which is the base ISO for my camera and my shutter speed is 1/200th of a second.
With the camera settings established in advance, I am going to turn my DigiBee DB800 which is a 320ws strobe up to full power and take a test shot. When I preview that frame, I want to be sure that I have the Image Highlights feature turned on. The technical term for this is the Blinky feature and what it does is blink in all the areas that are completely blown out and not recording any detail. Depending on your camera brand and model you will usually find this feature in either the histogram or display settings. Check your manual to be sure.
If the entire frame is blinking, I will turn the strobe down by one full stop and take another test shot. If everything is still blinking – I’ll turn the strobe down by another full stop and test again. I’ll repeat this until I get the first frame where parts of the background aren’t blinking. Then I will go back to my strobe and turn it up to the previous setting and I now have a pure white evenly lit background that is no brighter than necessary for my f/6.3 @ ISO 64 setup.
Now I will set up my main or key light which is the shoot-through brolly umbrella – also with a DigiBee DB800 and position it on camera left – slightly above my subject and angled down, with the second DigiBee set to its lowest power setting. I will do a test shot and take a look at my lcd preview. Then I will raise the power by one stop and test again and repeat this process until I have my subject’s face properly exposed.
And there you have it – a properly exposed TWO light portrait with a pure white background using a 55” PhotoFlex OctoDome as the backdrop.
Full disclosure…. The shots in this video were the very first time I used the DigiBee DB800s so I wasn’t familiar with their power. It took me about 90 seconds to test and dial in the proper exposure for both strobes. Once you do this a few times and are accustomed to your lights and their output, it will take a fraction of that time to come up with the correct exposure. The key is that I determined what I wanted my exposure to be FIRST and then set my lights to meet the needs of those settings.
For those of you that may be wondering why not just dial the background strobe up to full power and let the background blow-out? Because of your subject’s close proximity to the light source, and because the light that is aiming straight for your camera lens is much brighter than your chosen exposure requires, you will begin to get a lot of flare. This will greatly reduce the contrast of your image and just look sloppy.
I will give you a fun little trick that I sometimes do with the blown out background…. here that I have my subject in front of the OctoDome and DB800 which is set at full power:
I switched to a 50mm lens on my full-frame Nikon D810 so that I can get closer to my subject. Now remember, when shooting a portrait with a 50mm lens, you don’t want to get too close, otherwise you risk distortion in the face. I then took one of my Walmart reflectors – the 24” x 30” foam core- and placed the lens face down in the middle of the board. I traced the outline of the lens and then cut it out with an exacto knife. I slid the foam board over the lens to use it as a reflector and did a backlit portrait like you see here:
I am not a big fan of this technique in color, but it looks really cool in black and white:
Be forewarned: you will need to increase the contrast in post production to get pure blacks in your finished image.
If you found this tip helpful, you may be interested in this video about DIY Portable Background Stand & Portrait Photography Background Material for studio or location
There you have it gang: some space-saving and money-saving tips for shooting portraits and headshots on a white background. So what are you waiting for? Go pick up that camera and shoot something because your best shot is your next shot. So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. Adios!