DIY Photography Backdrop Resources, and Why You Should Make Your Own

DIY Photography Backdrop Resources, and Why You Should Make Your Own

If you're a creator of any kind, chances are you've experienced being in a creative rut at some point in your journey to make cool stuff. As a photographer and cinematographer, nothing could be more true for me. Photographers by nature, I feel, have a "do it yourself" attitude. In talking with Photographer Nikki Smith, a DIY backdrop project could be just what you need to reignite that missing spark and add an additional element of creativity to your work.

With inspiration from the famously talented backdrop painter Sarah Oliphant, a minimal budget, and that DIY nature we photographers have, Smith set out to create her first backdrops. With some old canvas curtains found in the trash at the studio she manages, and some $3 sample paint cans from Home Depot, Smith got started. “It was always the unique character of Oliphant's backdrops that gave the images on the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair their depth,” said Smith. “I wanted to emulate that same feeling in my work, and I knew that one of the keys was to have a background that wasn't just a solid color.”

Image by Nikki Smith.

When choosing the colors for her first backdrops, she new she wanted a gray-blue because of its complimentary nature with all skin tones. While the yellow-green also lends itself well to portraits, Smith says that was a more experimental choice. For both of the backdrops seen in this portrait session, she uses three shades of each respective color, applied with a broad, three-inch brush, and the occasional damp sponge for blending imperfections.

Image by Nikki Smith.

Smith says when looking for tips on picking materials and the paint application process, she turned to resources like ilovehatephotography, and Philip Vukelich. Both provide materials lists and instructions on application and texturing techniques.

The session pictured in this article, along with the materials provided in the previously mentioned resources, are the perfect example of what's possible with some reasonably inexpensive, or even found materials. “Creating your own props or backdrops only adds to the quality of your work,” said Smith. “Whenever I'm having a hard time getting creative, a new project can help me push through an artistic rut and gives me a sense of accomplishment when I get to use what I've made. It's exciting to see my backdrops in my images and it reaffirms that if I have an idea, I can make it happen.”

You can expect a followup where I sit down with Smith a second time for a more process-driven, step-by-step article on creating backdrops her way. If you've made your own in the past, leave a comment below with some of your favorite materials or color pallettes.

Images used with permission of Nikki Smith.

Sean Horton's picture

Sean is a commercial photographer and DP based in San Diego. He can usually be found petting the nearest dog, drinking beer, or watching the lowriders cruise his neighborhood while doing the aforementioned simultaneously.

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I think price including canvas adds so much I better will purchase from these:
Some 400 usd will get you a nice backdrop.

Nice try at a shameless plug. The whole idea here is to design your own so that you can have a unique backdrop on a budget. Anyone can go buy or rent those general molted grays.

Yes and many do, including Annie Leibovitz who so many copy using such backdrops.:)
Sorry it offended you, but it was for the benefit of others, my integrity is intact, I am not related or even customers with them, yet.

I've wanted to make a few for myself but I can't find the space to lay one out to dry. I live in an apartment.

I hear you about the drying space. I have a hanging rack above a radiator but could you not take it to the local laundrette for tumble drying?

Buy buy buy...saving countless hours and hours means $$$ you could have otherwise earned through additional photography sessions, marketing or retouching. And from reputable source you will get exactly what you want.

I got a used painters rag from a client of mine and it works beautifully. That said if you have time to spare and wanna do some creative excerise I think this could be a fun activity.

Problem I find with these painted canvas is storage. They will crease once you fold them away.

yep, purchased mine instead. There are several canvas backdrop sellers from eastern europe with good prices. Gravity Backdrops, Paintx Backdrops and Artery Backdrops. I got 4 large canvases from Artery for around 700. By the time you buy all the canvas, paint equipment and paint yourself you quickly find you spent a lot money and time and probably got low quality results as opposed to getting one from a professional.

I store mine on rolls so they don't crease or wrinkle.

Exactly, its like hiring a professional photographer as suppose to Uncle Joe. ; )

Yes, the creasing with storage is quite annoying. I'm hoping to be able to hang one somewhere permanently when I move house next month.

The secret ingredient is access to a photography studio trash bin, and not only that but checking every day to see if they throw away any old canvas sheets. Sounds like a great time and money waster. Are photographers really that poor?

Yes, I'm afraid that some of us are poor! It doesn't take that long to make one from an old sheet and some dye which I intend to do. Spending hundreds on a backdrop as some of the others mentioned seems all out of proportion to me. They must be making thousands a month!

Thank you for this article, I appreciated it. I am poor as it turns out, and $400 or $700 for a few painted backdrops (as mentioned by other comenters) is craaaazy. That's money I could spend on camera lenses, or lights, or food. I know what I'll be doing on my day off.

I agree with you Alexander Evans. Hundreds for a backdrop definitely is crazy. It really doesn't take that long to make one up. I will have fun doing that tomorrow - I have just the old sheet to hand and plenty of fabric dyes :)

I make my own, buy painters dust sheets, and dye them in the washing machine.

Painters dust sheets are a great option too since they are roughly woven and give that extra character :) I have an old French handwoven bed sheet which I intend on using tomorrow to make one actually!

I made several backdrops in Oliphant style by myself. Using pre-coated canvas and acrylic paint from Schminke.
The story about is on my blog (sorry only in German but you can try it with translate from Google)...

Really nice. i stumbled upon this book a while back, did the trick most if not all the time, try it out.

I will immediately apologize for the bad English - I am from Russia. I personally went all the way from "trying to draw" to making my own backdrops. The first full-fledged production in Russia. My subjective opinion: 1. If you have time for such experiments (three days, taking into account the purchase of materials and drawing), if you have a large room with a perfectly flat floor that can get dirty, if you have money for this experiment (tools , paints, canvas), and there is a desire not only to have a backdrop, but you are interested in creating it yourself, if you are ready for the fact that most likely it will turn out not what you plan, then this idea is for you. This is a very interesting activity for creative people, but it takes time and money. I have been painting backdrops since 2017. He began by deciding to try to draw himself. I had time and money and I got carried away. You will not learn this craft in a day, week, or month. Until now, every new backdrop for me is a new lesson, a new experiment. But in three years I have accumulated some experience and all my words are based on this experience. 2. If you want to save money on buying a branded canvas, you are greatly mistaken. The result of your work will not be of the same quality as Gravity or Oliphant. Three years ago I could not understand why their backdrops are so expensive, now I believe that their price is justified. Before buying materials, I advise you to calculate how much your backdrop will eventually cost (paints, canvas, tools, cleaning the room, your time is also worth a lot of money). Everyone should do what he knows how to do!