One Portrait Background to Rule Them All

Where studio portraiture often lacks in external interest and bokeh, it makes up for in image quality, clarity, and full light control. However, always shooting on a black or white backdrop is wildly limiting but having a whole host of different backdrops and changing them can be a pain in the proverbial. There is a much easier way to change your background completely in camera using only light and the right shade of gray.

The problem with white backgrounds is that they don't absorb the colored gels on lights very effectively and to change them in post requires the subject to be entirely cut out. The problem with black backgrounds is that it takes very high powered strobes to change them to a lighter color or white. Unsurprisingly, the middle ground is the best option: gray. You want to aim as close to Photoshop's 50% gray as possible as it take colored lights from gels very well, can be easily over-exposed for a pure white background, and easily under-exposed for a black background.

In this video, Joe Edelman goes through just how effective a gray background can be when used in conjunction with strobes and just basic knowledge of lighting. So many beauty portraits are created using exactly this technique and it can even be done on gray walls if they are matte. Edelman does a great job of explaining everything concisely for anyone looking to mix up their studio backgrounds for portraiture or products. Also, make sure you watch to the end for some great tips on how to create colored backgrounds without traditional gels and the sort of results you can attain from these techniques.

I recommend checking out Edelman's YouTube channel as there's some excellent content in there. My only concern is he isn't wearing enough beads.

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8 Comments

Michael Kormos's picture

Mocha is my favorite. It complements skin tones, and gives portraits that much needed warmth. Gray is safe, but mocha gives it a dash of life.

BTW, I'd be careful about placing plastic cups over your strobes. Modeling lamps usually put out 250 watts of heat. Melted plastic. You get the picture :-)

Anonymous's picture

The second he put that cup on the light, I thought how bad that was. My AB400 7" cones get too hot to touch sometimes.. That solo cup would be liquid after a minute. Horrible idea.

Wes Jones's picture

The velcro dots on the gels is genius. Makes them so easy mount and then store on the wall.

Thank you for the mention Robert - greatly appreciated! Btw... My wife makes the beads - I would wear more, but I can't get her to make them fast enough! What is your favorite color? I'll gladly have her make you some! :-)

Robert K Baggs's picture

You're welcome! I'm glad I stumbled upon your channel; there is some great information. Haha well she's got some talent -- they look great. Oh always black for me as it goes with everything.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Finally the article i was hoping for :D IKEA sells some sort of window curtain, a one piece roll 3m wide in gray. Don't know if it is acurate gray, but looked like a cheap short time solution to me :) only 19€ for the smallest one and 35€ for the 3m wide one. The good thing about it, is that it does not have wrinkles, making them easy to deal with in post. :D

fred lefeuvre's picture

So agree with that. Grey is my favourite background. So versatile. I m now considering painting all my studio in grey

Sebastian Aitken's picture

Absolutely Brilliant! That has taken my backdrop budgetary needs down to a minimum! Lovely - Thank Joe :-D