Photography Backdrops 101, A Comprehensive Guide

Photo by Annie Spratt

When it comes to photography, there are many different elements that contribute to the final outcome of a project or image. One of the most important and crucial elements of a photograph (especially in studio photography) is the use of photography backdrops. As a backdrop can set the stage and environment for a photo, as well as dictate many of the associating factors that come along with preparing for a photo shoot, it’s vital that backdrops not be considered as an afterthought. With many different styles and directions to take photography backdrops, it can get overwhelming when deciding which path to take. In addition to style and color, photographers must be aware of decisions that come along with choosing a potential backdrop for a set, these include: lighting, positioning, and even the logistics behind the subject being shot. Read on, as we break down our comprehensive guide to photography backdrops, and how to pick the backdrop that’s right for you.

Picking The Right Style For Your Backdrop

Photo by Kaizen Nguyen

There is a myriad of different photography backdrops to choose from when setting up your next shoot. Each of which, having their own unique qualities and guidelines of use. From the choice of portable to velour, or even backdrops for the ground – there’s no shortage of possibilities when deciding which avenue to take. Just like any aspect of a photograph, the styling of a backdrop is a vital component in helping tell the story of an image. Below, we’ve listed five potential backdrops to use during your next shoot, and what makes each of their characteristics so special.

Fabric Backdrop – When it comes to choosing a fabric backdrop, there are so many different outlets to express your creativity as a photographer. One deciding to go with a fabric photography backdrop, you’ll have several different options to choose from include: canvas, muslin, velour, and polyester.

Notably, the most common fabric backdrop is canvas, while versatile and long-lasting, canvas is notably known to be ideal for a studio (versus portable) as the material is thick and heavy. If deciding to bring a canvas backdrop with you on-the-go, make sure to note that the fabric tends to wrinkle during transportation. Canvas backdrops can range in price and average around $150 to $200.

Many photographers have changed their photography backdrops preference to muslin due to its lightweight and can transport easily. Photographers who shoot on location and in homes, love this fabric because it’s easy to assemble and can even be draped over many different walls or surfaces. Due to the benefits of muslin, the cost can be quite steep, prices range in the four figures averaging $2,000.

While thinking back to your senior year portraits, you may remember sitting in front of a black velour photography backdrop. Known to be the ideal fabric for theater performances and backdrops for stage settings as it’s the perfect fabric for lighting purposes. The only downside, due to the texture of the fabric, this photography backdrop will have to be regularly cleaned as it picks up dirt and dust faster than other fabrics.

Lastly, on our list of fabrics is polyester. Like the benefit of muslin, the fabric is wrinkle-free and easy to transport. While having the same upsides, you’re not receiving the downside of expensive pricing.

Collapsible Disc Backdrop – These portable photography backdrops are preferred amongst traveling and out of office (or studio) as they are one of the easiest backdrops to transport from one location to the next as they fold flat and are considerably lightweight. On-site photographers love using the collapsible discs because they can create an artistic environment almost anywhere as they come in a variety of themes or colors. An additional benefit, these photography backdrops are relatively inexpensive (ranging from $150 to $200) – the only downside is their size. The size of these collapsible discs can cover portraits comfortable but aren’t ideal for multi-person and lifestyle shots.

Seamless Paper – Preferred by photographers that are looking to capture products or still life, the seamless paper comes in many different colors (with white being the most popular or common) and a variety of sizes. This is one of the most chosen photography backdrops for influencers, both still and video, as they’re inexpensive (approximately $150 for a generous paper roll) and can be changed often. If choosing to go the seamless paper route, it’s important to take note that this material is not durable and can break easily – so it might not be the best to transport.

Chroma Key Backdrop – Photographers that use chroma key photography backdrops, have their very own green screen at their disposal. Coming in either green or blue, these backdrops allow for an easier post-production when it comes to editing. The screen allows for digital alterations, as you can insert your subject in many different environments after the shot has been captured. This is ideal backdrop for those who are working with talent, instead of moving location to location, the talent can all be captured in studio while the location shots are taken separately. This will lower not only lower costs, but allow you to capture great content instead of spending time going from location A to location B.

Floor Drops – Gaining popularity as more and more photographers are shooting newborn, infant, and pet images, floor drops are a great addition for those looking to capture stills from an aerial perspective. While many believe that it’s possible to take one of the other photography backdrops and simply lay it along the floor ( like muslin), using a backdrop specifically catered to floor shots allows a little more creativity and risk-taking as the variety of unique themes (like hardwood, brick, and even a football field) adds an extra element into the final piece.

How To Choose The Right Color For a Backdrop

Photo by Jimmy Fermin

More than complimenting your image, the colors chosen for your photography backdrops can have a tremendous effect on your lighting, framing your subject, and have an overall impact on the creative direction and theme of your shooting session. While there is a countless number of colors to choose for your next backdrop, we’ve outlined five of the most prominent colors and color themes.

White – While some think a white backdrop in a photo shoot brings a more minimalist style and tone to photography, that’s not necessarily the case. White backdrops, notably known as the most common, are actually the most misunderstood. If not set up or shot right, shooting against a white backdrop can end up looking grey and dull. Reason for the discrepancy in color has to do with how the backdrop is lit. Additionally, make sure the lighting is positioned to not only light the background of the subject for the whiter color payoff but creates enough shadow to clearly mark where the floor (or bottom of the photo) is located.

Grey – Technically not a measured as an official color, grey is considered a vital and crucial color within the photography world (when intentionally trying to shoot for grey). Used primarily in portrait shots, grey photography backdrops are a great option as they don’t overpower the subject when shooting and universally tend to compliment the subject as well (regardless of hair, skin, or eye color). As grey is also the hybrid of black and white, grey is beneficial to keep around when watching monetary spend, as some grey can convert to both white and black when placed with the right amount of lighting.

Bold Colors – Taking photography to a fun and whimsical place, bold colored photography backdrops are able to bring some brightness while maintaining professionalism. Something interesting to note when shooting with colored backdrops in photography is by lighting both the subject and the backdrop individually, you’re able to create a variety of colored tones through one backdrop. Meaning, your purchase of one colored backdrop, is pulling stretching your dollar (and portfolio) in many ways. If deciding to shoot with colored backdrops, it’s very important to learn the dynamics of color and color theory – as it can help cohesively pull your picture and shoot together.

Black – More than just a wardrobe for every city dweller, black is a great option to use when shooting imagery. When it comes to mastering lighting, black is the perfect color as some fabrics, like velour,  absorb the light without causing glare (which is why many theater companies and stage performances chose to use black for their shows). One important point to consider when shooting with black is to make sure your subject (if shooting portrait) isn’t wearing black as they could be washed out by the background.  

Texture/Imagery – Whether shooting on a predetermined image or a chroma key backdrop,  there are many advantages to lifting your pictures to unknown heights and placing your subject in a new world outside the standard studio. Giving photographers the chance to harness their creativity, imaginative photography backdrops can help tell a story and create a narrative. A caveat to keep in mind when shooting with any busier background is too much sure that textures, tones, and themes don’t clash between your backdrop and subject.  

Things To Consider When Choosing A Backdrop

Photo by Jade Aucamp

Along with the choice of fabric and color, there are several other considerations to keep in mind when choosing proper photography backdrops for your shoots. While some are physical aspects that revolve around positioning and lighting, some are more intrinsic and personal and align with our creativity and the objective we’re conveying with our image. Before picking your backdrop, make sure to ask yourself these following questions:

Is It Too Busy? – When going with a bold color or image backdrop (like mentioned earlier), it’s ideal to ask yourself if the image you’re planning on shooting will be too busy. If shooting multiple people, or lifestyle fashion with contrasting colors or texture you’re backdrop may over complicate the image and make it too busy. By adding together all the elements of your upcoming photo shoot before securing a backdrop it’ll help guarantee that you’re not over clashing your image.

What Am I Shooting? – The first question to ask yourself when setting up a shoot, is what am I shooting? Is it a product, a person, or even a pet. One of the main priorities to consider when cohesively placing together your image (including your photography backdrops) is evaluating the subject of your photo and which shooting gear and accessories are complimentary.

How Am I Utilizing My Creativity? – While you want to cross your t’s and dot your i’s to secure your imagery and make sure everything flows nicely together, it is also imperative to not play it safe and go with the simpler option. In an effort to not to over complicate or add too much busy-ness to a shoot, a photographer may go with the standard option. Make sure whichever photography backdrop is chosen, is done so deliberately and not because it’s simple or easy.

How Will I Arrange My Lighting? – As mentioned previously, lighting is a crucial element when playing around with different photography backdrops. Whether choosing different fabrics, material, or color, lighting will have a major impact on how the end result of the photo will come out. For example, does your backdrop require backlighting in addition to forefront lighting, or do both the backdrop and subject need to be individually lit?

How To Position Your Backdrop

Photo by Krists Luhaers

Backdrops have the ability to be set up almost anywhere (pending the material, size, and weight), and although they are accommodating and can be quiet versatile, there are many recommendations on how to situate or position photography backdrops when setting up in different locations. Whether on-site or in your own studio, every setting must be treated differently and calls for specific preparation and handling.

In A Studio – When setting up and positioning your photography backdrops within a studio, it’s safer to assume that the environment set up for the shoot will be semi-permanent. Since the backdrop will be staying a while (unless the environment of the photography studio turns quickly), it would be beneficial to create a stable and long-standing set which includes the positioning of your backdrop. To best help in a studio set up, try using a backdrop stand. The three crossbars make for a long-lasting and stable backdrop, as it’s the most commonly used there are many different variations and product price points (averaging $200 dollars per stand).

On Location – Notably the hardest photography backdrop setting, when shooting on location the skill comes from the fastest set up and clean up time. Meaning, there doesn’t leave much time for extensive equipment. Photographers on the go, prefer using the collapsible disc backdrops with their associating stands. These are great for location photographers as their lightweight, easy to assemble, and can range in versatility and size. Collapsible disc stands cost anywhere from $100 – $1000 pending the quality of the equipment.

In A Home – Many photographers go to homes to take a variety of different style photos, which include portrait and the use of photography backdrops. Since there is a little more flexibility shooting within a home (versus on location shots such as streets and business), as you’re granted a little more time for setting up and clean up, many photographers prefer using collapsable studio systems (especially for infant photography).

On The Floor – Sometimes, when shooting photography of subjects like pets, infants, or even products, photographers like to use floor backdrops. These can be great additions to an image, since they take away boring elements from staradized flooring. While extremely portable, you must give your floor-drop time to completely fall before shooting on it – as it would be unflattering (and unrealistic) for a floor to have rolls or ridges in an image. It’s also important to preplan what your standard backdrop is going to be if pairing both a floor drop and backdrop together, as they can clash with one another.

How To Work With Your Clients When Using A Backdrop

Photo by Jimmy Fermin

Whether your client is a person, an animal, plant, or product, making sure their needs and expectations are met is the main priority in any paid shoot. Each varying photo and shooting session revolves around creating a cohesive environment between the subject and the background, and in this particular case photography backdrop. Below we describe six potential clients and how to work with them, and incorporate them, into a backdrop.

Portrait Shots – One of the first questions to ask a client when shooting portrait is their experience and comfort level behind the camera. As this pertains to photography backdrops, having this knowledge can help create the dynamic of the image (especially if using an image or texture). Additionally, before shooting ask your clients to keep away from wearing bold jewelry or accessories (like caps) as it can take away from the face being the focal point of the image. When it comes to wardrobe, it may also be beneficial to inform your client or stylist to complement the color of your backdrop versus clashing or drowning it (for example: if shooting against a white backdrop, avoid wearing white).

Multiple Person Shots – The difficulty with shooting against a photography backdrop, comes with space and size that most backdrops occupy. As many photographers like to shoot multiple person shots more candidly versus posed, there is limited space to work with when trying to create a natural setting. Before shooting, have a conversation with your clients (or those who you are shooting) about working within the space and getting comfortable with the group dynamic. If necessary, work on chosen ‘candid’ poses within the smaller space.

Children and Infants – When looking to capture on film, children or infants while using photography backdrops, using floor drops is a perfect choice. Floor drops allow the camera to shoot aerially which is ideal for smaller subjects. When deciding which colors or material to use with children or infants, make sure it captures the fun and whimsical nature of your subjects while not clashing or creating a busy environment.

Still Life – Capturing still life may be less interactive than shooting with people, but it’s just as hands on. Along with making sure every subject in still life is properly lit, it must be complimented nicely with selected photography backdrops. First order of business when deciding which backdrop to use is to consider all the potential possibilities and how to be creative in this space.

Some photographers recommend complimenting whatever the subject matter happens to be – for example, if shooting tableware, try a rustic and wooden background that can replicate a picnic table. The best material to use for this style of photography backdrop is canvas. By either finding a unique piece or commissioning for a custom piece, it’s recommended to pick one that can be relatively universal as the cost of a canvas backdrop can be expensive.

Branded Products – Many brands hire photographers to shoot their upcoming products for advertisements or their online stores. When it comes to photography backdrops and branded content, creative liberty and expression may be more limited than many artists may want. When starting out with a new brand, it’s crucial to discuss the basis behind their imagery and branding guidelines. While some brands may have pre-existing backdrop requirements when it comes to texture or color, some may be more responsive to hearing your creative input when it comes to photography. If the latter, try suggesting universal and versatile options that can be used across both traditional and digital media outlets (like print and social media).

Textures – Textures can be one of the most beautiful and unique subjects to shoot, as there are a variety of textures (such as liquids, fabrics, creams or even flower petals) there’s no set formula on how to select the proper backdrop to cater to each subject. The main objective of a backdrop when shooting texture is to make it as non-distracting as possible, the focus should primarily be on the interesting and distinguishing properties of the texture. Photographers notably use colors like black, white, and grey for textured shots, and on occasion acrylic slides leaving the texture translucent.

What are ways you choose photography backdrops for your shoot? Share with us in the comments below!