Choosing Backdrops for Portrait Photography

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

There are lots of options for choosing backdrops for portraiture, starting with the material used. Muslin is a closely woven cloth produced from corded cotton yarn but what’s endeared it to photographers is that it’s light weight. A muslin backdrop can be stuffed into a bag and tossed in your car or truck. For a different style from the last time you used a particular background, muslin can be draped using clips (I like the heavy duty ones that Lowes sells) to provide a whole new look.

Because of their heavier weight, canvas backdrops are well suited for permanent installations. They can also be expensive but the surface lets the artist produce realistic looking backdrops. To avoid creasing, canvas backgrounds must be kept rolled when transporting. All these factors combine to create a background that’s expensive and more difficult to transport than muslin, yet many companies offer canvas backdrops and the selection is impressive.

The advantages of using  canvas are subjective: Because paint is hand brushed onto the canvas colors tend to be more intense. And because the background is flat a canvas backdrop is consistent from one session to the next.

But there is a Goldilocks option: Companies such as Silverlake Photo offer wrinkle-free fabric backdrops, called Colorsmacks, that can literally be smacked into place with sewn-in Velcro fasteners.

How I made this shot: Photographers committed to a traditional portraiture style feel canvas gives a more formal look but you can’t always tell by looking. The above portrait of Kim Z uses the hand-painted Carbonite muslin background from Silverlake Photo, that alas is no longer available. I photographed her with a Canon EOS 60D and EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens at 35mm. Exposure was 1/60 sec at f/11 and ISO 200. Lighting was my collection of Paul C. Buff Alien Bee and DigiBee monolights.

Today, I mostly use paper, muslin and Colorsmack backdrops but for many years schlepped canvas backdrops and set them up in locations as diverse as a client’s living room or at convention centers for on-location portraits. I have no doubt my old canvas backgrounds are still out there somewhere working hard for another photographer.

Don’t forget seamless paper. I’ll be talking about that in a future post.


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My book Joe Farace’s Glamour Photography is full of tips, tools and techniques for glamour and boudoir photography and includes information on all of the cameras used as well as the exposure data for each image. New books are available from Amazon for $27.43 with used copies starting at the bargain price of $5.51 as I write this. The Kindle version is $11.99 for those preferring a digital format.