Muslin and fabric backgrounds are something that all photographers eventually end up purchasing in a studio environment. I am often asked by other photographers which backgrounds I have or which I have purchased and why I purchased them. I purchase and carry with me black, white, and grey color tones. You don’t need any others unless it is something very special. This is what I am going to talk about in this post. This doesn’t mean I don’t buy seamless background paper, but you can use similar techniques with seamless paper, too.
There are so many things you can do with studio lighting, it is fairly obvious why most people will want a black, white, and grey background. With pattern backgrounds like “Old Master’s” patterns and the like, I always purchase (and use) greys and neutral shades. Most people should be thinking at this point: what is he talking about? Only grey? That would make some very dull photographs. What if I need some other color background, like red, blue, yellow, or any other color? Great questions and they tell me you are thinking.
A typical muslin will cost $170 or more for a 10×12 muslin or larger. You pay a lot for muslin backdrops, so anything you can do to give you more flexibility is important. One way to do this is to use your lights efficiently and utilize them in a way that gives you multiple colors instead of just greys. One way to do this is to use a colored gel on your background light that is used to illuminate your background. When you consider that you can get 6 to 20 colored gels for $35-$70 (or a single gel for about $6-7), and each color of gel gives you another background color. That is a lot cheaper than buying a completely new muslin background in each color. You can also use multiple lights to create multi-toned background colors. The multiple colors are interesting even more so when you use a cookie to project a pattern from one of the lights. A cookie is a sheet of material that projects a pattern or shape from the light or casts a specific shadow. They can be made from paper, poster board, card board, and various types of metal.
Gels are fairly easy to use – just clip them on the rim of your flash reflector (see picture to the right – the modeling light is still on in this image). Alternately, you can use the device your flash manufacturer created for this purpose and these vary in price depending on the type it is. Manufactured gel holders range from wire frames that attach to the umbrella holder of the flash (inexpensive) to complete reflectors with special vent holes and slots for paper gel holders (expensive but more durable).
There are some things to consider when using gels to change your background color. Heat becomes a problem with most lights when you gel them. One of three things can happen: a) the light overheats or b) the gel melts or c) nothing. If you can turn off the modeling light once your background light is set up, the risk of melting the gel or your light is reduced. Light spill is another problem from both the background light and from your main lights. You have to make sure you set them up correctly and at the right intensities. This may mean flagging or gridding the various lights used to avoid the spill. It may mean using a grid or snoot. If your main light is too strong and spills on your background, it will fade out your gelled light’s strength leaving only a shadow with the gelled color. If your background light is too strong, the gelled light will reflect from the background and onto your your subject (the infamous nuclear look).
I hope this gives you another inexpensive tool in your photography toolbox that you can use to enhance your photography and maximize the use of your equipment.
A special thanks for my two models below, Jenn and Lisa, who are very dear to me, and who have allowed me to use their images for these examples.
Here is an image that shows the background as it really is without any special lighting on the background so you can see what it really looks like:
Below are some images using this method to change the backdrop color. These images all use two lights: one to illuminate the model and one to light the backdrop. The backdrop is the same one in each of the images:
All information and images are ©2012 Don Krajewski on this post.