Not every photographer is fortunate enough to have a professional studio from which to work, but with a little creativity, you can come up with some fabulous backdrops. Choose the perfect background for your photo based on your subject, the reason for the photo shoot, and your experience working with both lighting and camera settings.
There are times when you want the backdrop to be quite simple so it doesn't detract from the subjects in the photo. Fortunately, there are some inexpensive and beautiful backdrops that you can use for this purpose.
A basic white background works well to put the entire focus on the subject in a photo, making it the perfect setup for any head shot. You'll want to find a room with some good natural light and hang a plain white sheet so the light is in front of the subject.
The key with this backdrop is to get the sheet as wrinkle free as possible, so iron it before you begin. Create a hem along the bottom and the top of the sheet. This is done by folding an edge over and stitching it in place, but leaving either end open so you can insert a curtain rod. It will look similar to a curtain when you are finished but without pleating, and with a pocket on both the top and bottom.
Insert a curtain rod through the bottom hem. This will weigh the sheet down and make it hang straighter. Insert another rod in the top hem and hang the sheet from the ceiling with hooks or extra-strength fishing line. If there are wrinkles in the sheet, steam them out with a steam iron.
Material and Rugs
Another option is to use material you have on hand, such as extra fabric, a lightweight blanket or a rug with an interesting pattern. This kind of backdrop works well for photos of young children and families. For example, you can hang a baby blanket in the background and take a close-up shot. Family portraits are also lovely when posed in front of a family heirloom quilt.
The best thing to do is to find a solid, neutral colored wall and hang the object down from the wall so that it fills all or most of the background.
If the wall-hanging doesn't fill the entire background of a full-length shot, sight the photo through your camera lens and see if it looks good with part of the wall showing. If not, then you may want to shoot close-ups only so that the rug completely fills the background.
- To hang fabric such as blankets or lightweight rugs, use existing curtain rods or picture hooks to hang the material using pins or clothespins to secure it if necessary. Simply drape the material down the wall and out in front of the wall onto the floor. Unlike the white background, a bit of texture can add interest. Let the fabric drape naturally and then pool it at the bottom.
- If you want to use an area where there are no existing rods or hooks, the easiest and most cost effective way to hang the material is to purchase some 3M Command hooks and pant hangers with metal clips. Place each end of the rug (or material) on the hangers and then measure where the hooks are located so you know how far apart to space the command strips on your wall. This will be strong enough to hold a lightweight rug, blanket or material in place for a short period of time and won't damage your wall the way nails or screw-in hooks would.
A simple wood background offers a rustic look for your photo. This background works for all ages with nearly any headshot or full body body shot for a single person. If you plan to have multiple people in the photo, get two or more panels and push them together.
You can purchase a single sheet of paneling at home supply stores in a variety of sizes. Don't go any smaller than four feet wide by eight feet tall, especially if you want to do full-length shots. Try to find paneling that is matte (does not have any shine) to reduce glare from any lighting you need to add.
One of the best things about using a sheet of paneling is that you simply need to prop it against a wall, stand the subject four feet away from it and snap your photos.
- Indoors, shine a filtered light on your subject from the front or side.
- Outdoors, you shouldn't need any additional lighting, but take the photo when light is soft in the morning or just before sunset to avoid harsh shadows.
Unique Fences and Gazebos
It's the classic engagement shot: the young couple holding hands or kissing in front the unique looking fence or gazebo structure. However, to add interest to the photo think about what you can do to make it unique.
Add touches such as:
- Looping flowers over the gazebo entryway
- Stringing twinkly lights over the fence's rails
- Adding sheer curtains to either side of the gazebo entrance for added texture and contrast, or looping sheer fabric over the top rail
The best time of day to take these outdoor shots is early morning or late afternoon when the light is softer. However, by adjusting shutter and ISO, you can take the shot at any time of day. Keep in mind that if you open the shutter, you should use a tripod to avoid camera shake.
Brick or Stone Walls
What senior portrait package is complete without at least one brick or stone wall shot? Brick walls add tons of texture and interest and look good for both color and black and white shots. The interesting thing about brick and stone is that no two walls look alike, so you can have a unique photo each time you find a new one to shoot in front of.
There really isn't any prep work to using a brick wall, but you should look at the patterns in the wall and try to pick an area that is interesting to have your subject posed in front of. Different types of stone and brick have different patterns, wear, and coloring.
Posing your subject can also be fun with this type of backdrop. For example:
- If you want your subject to lean up against a stone wall, you would want to choose an area that has some larger stones or stones jutting out where the subject can place her hands, a foot, or rest an elbow.
- If the subject is simply standing in front of the brick or stone wall, have her turn to the side and position her arms in an interesting way that looks natural. One arm up and one holding a necklace or shirt creates nice contrast.
Old doors make fabulous backdrops and there are so many varieties of doors that you can find nearly any color, pattern or style you can imagine. If you don't own the door, make sure you get the owner's permission to take a few photos. Most people are happy to accommodate your request when you explain that you adore the look of their door.
Special photos can be taken using doorways that have particular meaning, such as:
- School doors at graduation
- Church doors for weddings or communions
- Castle or museum doors to document a trip
Keep in mind that if you want to get the entire door in the photo and the door is tall, that you will want to have your subject stand so that the composition of the photo is balanced. You don't want the entire frame filled with the door and your subject in the lower ninth of the photo. If you don't need to get the entire door in the photo, a group can be scattered up and down the steps with just a portion of the doorway showing.
Holiday and Seasonal Backgrounds
There are many types of holiday and seasonal backgrounds you can utilize to get a few professional looking snapshots without spending a fortune. The easiest thing to do is to use items already in your home where possible.
Frozen Themed Background
Disney's animated film Frozen is popular with nearly every child. Using a backdrop that reminds children of a beloved film will make them more relaxed, and you'll be more likely to get real smiles out of them as they pose.
You'll need to begin with a white wall, or the white fabric backdrop described above. Attach twinkly white lights to the wall with clear tape in any pattern you'd like. Then, hang one or two sheer white curtains over the wall as you would a blanket or rug, or you can string picture frame wire through the top pocket of the curtains and hook the wire to existing nails or other hangers.
Make some paper snowflakes and hang them down from the ceiling with fishing line. The snowflakes should hang so that they appear to be falling around the subject, so estimate the subject's height when placing these.
To make this photo even more fun, have the child dress in a Frozen-inspired costume and consider buying a cut-out of Olaf to place beside her.
Nothing says Valentine's Day like a heart, or two, or a bunch of them. Create your own Valentine's background for creative and fun photos.
Red and pink lace paper doilies can be cut into heart shapes in varying sizes. Find a plain, neutral colored wall (white works best, but any neutral color will work) and use adhesive putty to arrange the hearts all over the wall. It doesn't matter what arrangement you use as long as the hearts will be visible behind the subjects.
Of course this setup is perfect for couples. They can hold hands, gaze at each other, make silly faces or use any sort of fun pose they'd like.
This arrangement also works well for family portraits. The adults can kneel in front of the hearts and the children can stand, or everyone can be seated on different sizes of stools. You can also have the subjects interact with the hearts by facing the wall with their hands on the hearts, turning to face the photographer.
Red and Green Streamers
If you are taking the company party photos this year and need a quick and simple backdrop idea that will work for nearly anyone, hang red and green streamers from the ceiling to the floor. The area should be about five feet wide to accommodate groups of workers, and the streamers should be right next to one another, alternating red and green.
If you have the time and want to add a bit more interest, you can also use some fishing line to hang gold and silver metal ornaments from the ceiling so they sit just in front of the streamers.
This background works best if you have the subjects stand about three feet in front of it and you blur the background a bit. Otherwise it can be too harsh, especially if people are already wearing holiday-themed clothing.
Mirrors make amazing backdrops for generational photos, shots of young people heading into the future, or sibling photos. Lay a large mirror in a field to take a photo of a baby and her big brother, for example, by having each child sit on either side of the mirror and look down into the reflection.
Mirrors can be propped against walls or placed on a surface. You can even prop them on a table and have the subject pretend to reach out to the other figure in the mirror.
You will need to work on angles to get the lighting just right, as mirrors can create a lot of extra light in the photo. You may also need to adjust your shutter speed settings to let in the perfect amount of light. Because you may need to play with shutter speed and ISO, make sure you have a tripod handy to reduce camera shake.
If you are taking the photo indoors and you need additional lighting, place a filtered light to the side of the subjects about four feet away. If you are taking the photo outdoors, be sure the sun is not high overhead where it might shine into the mirror and reflect into the subjects' eyes. It is best to take the photos early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the lighting is soft. You could also take the photos on an overcast day.
Wall of Objects
Hanging a group of similar objects on a wall can create an interesting and unique backdrop. Hang dozens of vinyl records on the wall for a music lover, for example. Adhesive putty works well to temporarily hang objects and then remove them easily without damaging the wall.
Other objects you might want to hang on the wall include:
- Balloons in single or multiple colors
- Real or artificial flowers
- Origami animals or other shapes
- Metallic doilies in white and gold
- Sheets of wrapping paper
- Old newspaper clippings
This type of background can be customized to the subjects in the photo. A multi-generational family shot could use newspapers spanning the decades, or use a backdrop of checkered wrapping paper for a group shot of your local chess club. Play around with different items that will complement but not overwhelm your subjects.
Chalk Board Paint
If you have a bit more time to prepare and want a truly custom look, invest in some chalk board paint and paint one wall with it. Chalk board paint comes in different colors, but the basic black paint works best as you can use it over and over for different purposes. You can always buy different colors of chalk, after all.
Apply a couple of coats of the paint, allowing the first to to dry completely before starting on the second. Once the second coat of paint is dry, you can create a chalk arch, add captions or titles, or even entwine the names of a newly married couple.
If you don't have a free wall to paint, you can purchase two large sheets of plywood and paint those with the chalk board paint. Then, simply lean them against the wall. Be sure they are balanced so that the bottom is pulled out a bit from the wall and the top leans into the wall. You don't want the board to fall over on your subject.
This backdrop is completely versatile. It can be used for wedding photos, senior pictures, photos of objects and even photos of young children. You can also snap shots of finished recipes, and use chalk to write the name of the dish above the plate.
The Best Backdrops
Unique backgrounds are all around. The best backdrops are those that are very personal to the people you're taking pictures of. Look at the world around you with an artistic eye and you'll soon start to see different backdrops already in place, and ways you can adapt them to your photos.