Elevate Your Photography by Using Hand-Painted Backdrops

Elevate Your Photography by Using Hand-Painted Backdrops

While I agree that a great photographer can create incredible images using basic tools, it is no secret that great tools can help a good photographer achieve greatness. Over the last year or two, new strobes, new lenses, and a plethora of modifiers have helped elevate my studio photography to new levels, but one tool has brought it to a new level more than anything else: painted backdrops. And so, I wanted to share some resources on how to get painted backdrops without putting a second mortgage on your house.

I'll start by saying I love seamless paper in my work. Cleaning and reorganizing my studio, I found that I have over 25 nine-foot rolls of seamless paper in a large variety of colors that help me create different looks and styles with my work. But when I want to add a different element to my work, I love using painted backdrops to help create an added dimension, and over the last few years, I've found some great studio pieces from a couple of different sources.

Why Painted Backdrops Are Better

Hand-painted backdrops can easily take criticism from those who are trying to save a few dollars. Sure, a backdrop can be digitally made; a gray roll of seamless can take a texture overlay in Photoshop and give believable results. But the difference is pretty vast in dimensionality. There is no way to truly and accurately explain the depth you get from a well-made painted backdrop. But like how a veteran photographer can tell if their client is a smoker by simply taking a photo of them using studio lights, hand-painted backdrops work in essentially the same way, and it comes from the underlying layers. In short, there is a reason why custom backdrop makers explain how many layers of paint they often use in their work, and it's not just marketing jumbo.

Before putting this list together, I'll start by saying I'm not sponsored or getting paid by any of these backdrop companies. I really love their products and felt that they needed additional attention to their work. Secondly, I'll fundamentally disagree that you can get the same effect by adding the texture and tones in post-production. Lighting backdrops painted using multiple layers of various paint tones gives a specular depth to the images that isn't easily described in a series of verbs. Let's go through the list and share four painted backdrop options that won't break the bank.

Fine Art Backdrops

The first on this list is certainly one that I have the most experience with. Run by Ashley and Joshua Simmons in Minnesota, Fine Art Backdrops has built quite a positive reputation among portrait photographers over the last few years. Using locally sourced canvases, Fine Art Backdrops has an extensive range of custom-painted backdrops in various sizes and ships throughout the United States and internationally. I've used Fine Art Backdrops for a few years now, and they are the creators behind the small gray backdrop that I've used for a few dozen beauty sessions at this point.

Ethan Alex Backdrops

Among another favorite backdrop maker of mine is the work of Ethan Alex at Ethan Alex Backdrops. Like Fine Art Backdrops, Ethan custom-makes his backdrops and sells the individually numbered pieces on his Instagram on a first-come, first-serve basis (and they usually go pretty quickly). While Fine Art Backdrops are known and loved for their lighter and airier tones, Ethan really specializes in making the darker, more dramatic backdrop shades, though he will occasionally surprise us with a light blue or two.

Obsidian Studios

Of the four backdrop companies mentioned in this article, Obsidian is the one brand I don't have personal experience with, but felt was worth shouting out based on the reputation they've built among my friends and colleagues. Obsidian Studios is a New England-based backdrop company put together by Derek Soohoo and Jay Coy. If Fine Art Backdrops are known for their bright, rich colors, and Ethan Alex is known for his dramatic tones, then Obsidian Studios specializes in textures and industrial looks. In addition to purchasing backdrops, Obsidian recently opened up a rental program for their backdrops, available on their website.

Gravity Backdrops

And the final mention in this article is the company that really got me started in hand-painted canvases to begin with, Gravity Backdrops. Based in Europe, Gravity Backdrop ships worldwide and has created over a thousand backdrops in its nearly 10 years in business. While shipping can be expensive, Gravity has the largest selection of custom backdrops available, with a large store and plenty of photos.

Summary

To summarize, here is my list of recommendations to bring a new element into your portrait photography work. Over the last couple of years, no other piece of equipment has changed the style of my work for the better, and that has resulted in a pretty large collection of backdrops to use in my work. While it’s easy to justify buying a new light or lens to “better” your photography if you’re a studio photographer, consider looking into a new custom backdrop.

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33 Comments

Lee Christiansen's picture

I'll take issue wit the statement that "the difference is pretty vast in dimensionality."

A well crafted digital addition to a paper backdrop can easily be indistinguishable from a hand painted one. I have a template I've created which allows instant customisation of texture and colour mottling, and it takes just 2 minutes to add in post.

Done well, they give the same results but with added flexibility. Done badly they're not as good - but anything done badly is never good.

And the beauty is that once you know how, they're easy.

In fact, I can create a vast variety of entirely realistic and creative solutions from a single charcoal grey and a coloured gel if I want to. (The majority of my headshot and portrait work). Painted backdrops are very nice, but they all,ost force the photographer into a narrower creative mode due to storage issues and cost, not withstanding that each backdrop will have its own distinctive texture. I see too many portfolios where we can all see the photographer has just two backdrops and uses them far too much.

I have in my regular use: charcoal grey, white, leaf and china blue papers and a black velvet cloth. Oodles of options when used plain or with digitally added textures.

Statements like the aforementioned are elitist and presume ability in PS. It just isn't true.

Zach Sutton's picture

I always thought the voice of a true photographer was "Fix it in camera, don't fix it in post, that's lazy". So has that messaging changed then?

Dave F's picture

Maybe you should ask your boss. Not two hours before you posted this, Patrick posted an article where he replaced the entire sky in a photo and didn't bat an eye. That's way more than adding some subtle texture to a studio backdrop. You even sell a freaking "sky library".

Not that I care either way, but if you're going to bang up one of your readers you should at least have a consistent message with the brand. Sheesh.

Zach Sutton's picture

I don't work for Fstoppers, this is a guest post I submitted. I'm just trying to help people get the resources for those who want to buy hand-painted backdrops.

However, building a fake background because you don't want to buy a hand-painted one is quite a bit different than swapping the sky out on a photo for one more interesting, don't you think? Studio photography is all about controlling the elements within the photo, whereas being on location might involve fixing something beyond your control in post. What you're presenting here is a false equivalency, and pairing it with some general inaccuracies across the board.

Dave F's picture

Yeah, I don’t really care if you *actually* work for FStoppers. I punched up the language to make a point, which is that you’re representing a position that’s at odds with the very site you’re posting for. And a stupid one at that.

It’s not a false equivalency at all; adding/replacing something in post is adding/replacing something in post, period. When your argument against backdrop texture is “get it right in camera”, you can’t selectively choose when someone “has to get it right” vs. when it’s ok to do it later. And saying sky replacement is ok but backdrop texture isn’t is even more ridiculous, because you’re far more likely to find people who take exception to altering the conditions of nature than you are to find somebody who actually cares whether or not a studio backdrop is “real”. What a weird thing to be a purist about. Commercial studio photography is full of post production wizardry. Nothing new or shocking here. Expecting a commission on some backdrops are we?

Also, adding texture to a seamless backdrop is not the same thing as completely swapping a background (which makes it even less of an alteration than swapping an entire sky). You still have to “control the elements” to ensure the backdrop is properly lit for the way you intend to modify it later.

If adding texture to a backdrop in post is cheating, then so is removing blemishes from people’s skin. After all, you could have added more makeup during the shoot. You’re going to tell me your images aren’t retouched? GTFO.

What a strange hill to die on.

Zach Sutton's picture

"What a strange hill to die on."

Finally, we agree on something. Though I worry you're projecting more than you might realize

Dave F's picture

Hang on, I think I have my douchebag-to-English dictionary around here somewhere.

Translation:

“All I had to say to the first poster was ‘Yup, good point, that’s an option as well!’ but instead I decided to act like a pretentious prick and got called out for it. Then I discovered that I didn’t know what I was talking about because my response completely contradicted itself, but instead of trying to talk my way out of it (which I can’t, because I don’t have a leg to stand on), I’ll deflect by accusing somebody of a logical fallacy (again), which I like to do a lot because I think it makes me sound smart.”

But by all means, feel free to double down some more. It only adds to the classiness of your other comments.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Ask Ansel Adams.
Ask the huge amount of talented photographers, (more than you or I), who use post production...

Setting the lights and clicking the button is only half of the story. It always has been this way. Talented 'togs have been dodging, burning, compositing since - well almost since film was invented. Even skin retouching by manipulating the actual negative.

Photography is so much more than just at the camera end. I'll assume you never PS a hair out of place or place an adjustment layer or crop a frame in post - lest your photograph stops being a photograph.

And lazy...? Let someone else do all the hard work in creating a painted backdrop and merely take the credit for placing it behind - rather than digitally creating your own and skilfully compositing it in using learned techniques and judgement... Seems the former is an easier path.

Next we'll have articles like "LR sliders are evil," or "Digital is not photography" or maybe "If it's not in the darkroom, it isn't real."

And yes the message changed more than 150 years ago, so you're a little behind the times. Keep up...

Feel free to learn a thing or two before you comment - does us all good and spares embarrassment. And so I offer you a link to a less "shouty" photography website which will open your eyes. (Unless of course you're going to question Toulouse-Lautrec's credibility or work ethic too?).

Or just Google stuff. Eyes opened...!

https://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2012/09/28/before-photoshop-how-ph...

Zach Sutton's picture

You're both saying I'm behind the times and telling me to ask a photographer who died nearly 40 years ago. Instead, let's look at the work of legends like Annie Leibowitz, Patrick Demarchelier, Mary Ellen Mark, Martin Schoeller, and David LaChapelle who are very much alive (Aside from Mary Ellen Mark who died a couple of years ago) and very much promote hand-painted backdrops.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Annie Leibowitz - who has an army of retouchers and composite artists for much of her commercial work...! Come on now. You're going to have to do better than that.

Again, research is your friend. Google is free and easy.

Try Googling Annie's work with Disney.

And we're only allowed to cite photographers that are alive? Convenient when your argument is questioning if the message should have changed or not. Which is it - do we cite older photographers who do or younger ones that don't or younger ones that do but not the old ways... make a decision and stick to it.

Retouching and image manipulation are almost as old as the craft itself, because the craft doesn't stop when the image is secured. It stops only when the image is delivered.

You preach, but you have a lack of historical understanding of which you speak that is breath taking.

But YOUR work has oodles of retouching. Good for the goose but not for the gander? Ok to manipulate your pixels but not ours? Or you get to say what is true photographic manipulation but we don't?

I was expecting a portfolio of natural, never retouched, never manipulated images, (gotta love that skin retouching, or the one where the backlight outdoors is so obviously added... Yes I've researched your work. All great stuff and skillfully done, no problems there - but does hit an issue when telling us that image manipulation isn't in the spirit of true photography or that it can be signs of laziness.

(Mind, I don't farm out my retouching to skilled practitioners like Mr Naik - I do it myself. Perhaps it is only cheating if we do it ourselves?)

Again your work and your preaching don't match. Your history and what you say don't tally. And you selectively choose the wrong people to showcase your point when they're doing oodles of compositing too.

So may words here so you may have missed the point. Photography STARTS with the camera, it doesn't end when the button is pressed. Otherwise we'd have galleries with just negative strips hanging on the walls or viewers attached to Compact Flash drives.

So used to teaching and so uninterested in seeing a world beyond your own. Such a pity on a field which is supposed to be so creatively minded and broad thinking.

Zach Sutton's picture

In what world did you think I said I was against retouching? You're building your own false narrative to try to help your case. I simply said that if it can be achieved in-camera, then it should be...and you argued against that fact.

Dave F's picture

"...was 'Fix it in camera, don't fix it in post, that's lazy.'

Black and white statement, no shades of gray here.

"I always thought the voice of a true photographer..."

Implies you agree.

"So has that messaging changed then?"

You invited this discussion when you asked the question. Then you contradicted yourself a bunch in an attempt to save face after making the original dismissive comment, instead of just saying, "yeah, adding texture to a background in post is also a viable option, which in no way detracts from my article, just offers an alternative."

The hole you're digging for yourself is only getting bigger. Just stop. Your ego is clearly too fragile to write here.

Zach Sutton's picture

First, I posted a question, by saying --
"I always thought the voice of a true photographer was "Fix it in camera, don't fix it in post, that's lazy". So has that messaging changed then?"

Context is important here. Any implication from that statement is your own.

Secondly, again - context. The entire article is posed under studio photography, and the immediate counter-argument was landscape photographers. The immediate straw man fallacy was comparing sky replacements on a gloomy day to a backdrop in a controlled environment.

You've continuously jumped to false conclusions on my statements, projected your own condescending views onto others, insulted others, and built false equivalencies. You've even created the falsehood that everyone is against my statements here when the voting system within the comments system itself suggests otherwise.

The fragility here is your own. After all, you're the one criticizing others whilst using an anonymous account without any examples of your own work here.

Take care, "Dave F"

Lee Christiansen's picture

Zach, Zach, Zach...

It is true you are digging a hole that is getting deeper. If you're asking the question of whether the message has changed, then you really shouldn't be writing your original post. But if you're trying to be sarcastic, then you'll need to do a better job. So which is it to be.

Hoping that we'll read an open minded point of view from your statements is, well... hopeful. (Hint - we're not buying it).

You argue that painted backdrops are "better" than adding a texture in post. I have textured backdrops which I tend not to use these days. I wonder if you could tell which were real and which were not. I'll bet my granny you can't.

Your article took a high ground that said painted backdrops were better than doing it in post and your reasons were flawed.

You went on to ask if you knew what you were talking about ("has the messaging changed then"), so we're helpfully telling you that alas, you are indeed not correct.

Then after wondering if the messages of old have changed you don't seem to value the examples of the old days as valid enough, (they're dead apparently). But an example you give is one where the photographer in question happily uses composites and background replacement in her studio work to suit an end.

The notion that real backdrops offer a dimensionally that pixel manipulation can't match is hilarious. Backdrops are almost 2D to start with and so are probably the easiest thing to replicate. But apparently skin manipulation doesn't offer less dimensionality which is why you're happy to do it or have others do it for you.

The reality is of course that done well, we can't tell the difference - assuming that's the aim anyway.

Of course if you're going to weigh the accuracy of your statements with how many likes, hugs, ticks or thumbs up you're getting - then go for it. But wisdom is not proved with a happy face stamped on your thesis.

Adding textures or patterns to backdrops is no more a thing than any other pixel manipulation. You've apparently decided that pixels outside the subject area is unrealistic and worse, (not-better so to speak). And you mistakingly state this in your article.

Now - had you written why you enjoy using backdrops and why you like what they bring to the party, then that's all great. But you didn't.

If your reply to me had been that you appreciate others can produce authentic results that offer a different approach with benefits of flexibility and finish... but you didn't.

If you hadn't asked what the current message was, then we'd assume you knew.

If you'd used examples where the artist never used fake backgrounds then we'd be impressed.

If you'd known photographers have been doing this stuff as part of their craft for 150 years...

The problem is that your original premise was flawed. There is no "better." There is only different approach. I can write an article which preaches how adding texture is "better" than using a painted backdrop - but I won't because I'm not a muppet. (And there are a lot of reasons I can give...)

You have an approach. Good for you. You like it and I'm pleased as lunch that you're a happy bunny.

But if you have an urge to write an article again for us, remember a few basics...

If you preach something is better then you'll need to have something solid.
If you bring up the old days then be sure to know what they were.
If you're using examples in your arguments, research them well.

And if it is possible that you've made a boo boo, then have the grace to say oops. Because deep holes are ever harder to get out of when you keep digging.

Zach Sutton's picture

As for the continual criticism of me hiring a retouching. I have put a retoucher on staff only after I no longer had the time to meet my shooting goals and retouching in conjunction. I ended up hiring a retoucher full-time so that I could take on more shoots. However, much of the work found on my website, and plenty of work on my social media has had the retouching done by me. In fact, I work with my retoucher daily, and do a lot of editing on my images (often referred to as finishing) before they get sent to clients.

Dave F's picture

"You've even created the falsehood that everyone is against my statements here when the voting system within the comments system itself suggests otherwise."

Hahahahaha YOU'RE THE ONE CLICKING THE DOWNVOTES! HAAHAHAHAHAHA. Please tell me you're getting paid per comment.

Zach Sutton's picture

You're still giving false context, my man. It seems that I'm not the only one downvoting your comments.

Dave F's picture

There, now we have the same number of downvotes. Haha you're a clown.

David T's picture

> Next we'll have articles like "LR sliders are evil," or "Digital is not photography" or maybe "If it's not in the darkroom, it isn't real."

Total strawman, I didn't get any gatekeeping vibes from the article. Zach just explained another great tool to have.

Lee Christiansen's picture

He did explain some great options. But they are options, not "better." (To quote him).

David T's picture

It's better to have or know more options. Just like the option of using a studio or artificial light or a digital camera...

David T's picture

Also, it can be interesting to use background or props to the image as part of the story or composition, e.g. here

https://www.pinterest.de/pin/183662491041586059/

or here

https://youtu.be/-3KCWTzEO5Y?t=265

For very simple background replacements a digital texture can work, but I ask myself why limit yourself? You can hang a backdrop PLUS even more adjustments in post... just like one actually puts on clothes and makeup then enhances them in post.

Even hollywood is going back to having actual visible stages (Stagecraft) instead of acting only in front of green screens. It gives everybody on set more creative fuel.

Lee Christiansen's picture

It's my ambition to find the perfect stool and the perfect stepladder for my portrait work. I've never quite found the one I love. Time to get some and distress them creatively, along with a few apple boxes I'll have tomato and an old crate or two...

(And then find the space to keep all these things - ha)

Frederick Woods's picture

Anywho...Nice, concise article. Thank you for the suggestions. I had never heard of the first company you mentioned; I’ll check them out.

Zach Sutton's picture

Thanks for taking the time to read, Frederick!

John David Pittman's picture

Weird that the author of a a guest op-Ed gets ripped for defending the opinion expressed in his op-Ed.

Pedro Pulido's picture

does anyone have suggestions on more european based backdrop and "wood flat-lays" for product photography ?

David T's picture

Started making my own. I am too cheap to buy professional ones :D

Pre-Primed canvas is around 5-10 euro per meter and comes on a cardboard roll, very handy. Bought normal wall paint, 1 litre bottle as base (plenty for 2*2 meters) and then some of the "sample" sizes to create different colors. Add plenty of water and go ham.

They of course lack the artistic ability of professional painters but certainly add something interesting. Also makes the result easier to visualize on set. I really hate changing background in photoshop, it's easy to fall into uncanny valley territory.

Zach Sutton's picture

The homemade solution looks great! I stained a few Apple Boxes last week, and I think I ruined two pairs of clothes in the process, so I think it's best if I leave the backdrop making to the professionals.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Braver than me David. The thought of messing my studio up with paint would fill me with dread - ha. Must be satisfying when you get a backdrop that is uniquely yours.

Gary Barragan's picture

Love my Oliphant collection and looking forward to an Ethan christening my studio wall soon.

David T's picture

I love that you incorporate them as part of the composition into the image! Are those bulldog clips to hold them?

Brian Cade's picture

I first caught your article when you first posted it, really dig it, made me revisit these companies, as well as a few not on the list such as PaintX and Unique, I've been trying to decide for months who to go with. I went with Fine Art Backdrops, Ashley Simmons was on point with answering my emails right away and kept me posted when the color and texture I wanted would be created and in stock, my Fine Art Backdrop should be here sometime next week, looking forward to it arriving.