I get asked to do a lot of studio test shoots. You know the ones I mean—a few outfit changes, some standing shots, some sitting, headshots, three quarter and full body. I don’t know about you, but after a while it becomes a bit formulaic & monotonous, and I tend to get a little…uninspired. I find that it’s important to keep things interesting; one way to do this is to be creative with your sets—particular by changing up your backgrounds.
While I (as I imagine most of you) would love to have an endless supply of Oliphant backdrops at my disposal, for most studios this tends to be a prohibitively expensive option. The good news is that there are a number of ways to incorporate interesting backdrops into your work at a very reasonable cost.
1) Foam core
Okay, so this one’s a bit of a no brainer. The easiest way to quickly and cheaply change up your background is to throw a piece of foam core behind your subject. I typically like to use a full 4’x8’ sheet you can pick up at any art or craft supply store, since this size tends to work for full body shots; I’ve also used 3’x5’ boards for half and head shots without problems. The thicker sheets tend to be a bit more rigid and tend not to curl as much due to humidity when you store them away, but honestly even the cheapest piece will work in a pinch. You’ve likely got a few pieces of foam core lying around anyway to use for filling/blocking light (and if you don’t, get on that!) so essentially you’ve got a free backdrop already in your kit.
Cost: $20– foam core (4’x8’)
I love the look of wallpaper, but once again my fickle mind can’t justify the expense of repapering over the same wall every time I get bored (and I don’t think my landlords would be too thrilled about it either). Well remember that foam core you bought for your first backdrop? Well why not just flip it around and wallpaper the back of it? Boom, two backdrops in one, for the cost of some wallpaper paste and a roll of your favorite wallpaper.
Cost: $20-100– wallpaper (per roll); $7 – wallpaper paste (quart); $20– foam core (4’x8’)
Incorporating fabric in your backdrop arsenal opens up a whooole word of options to you. I like to go to the fabric store and select something from the upholstery/home furnishing section, as it tends to be a bit more durable, and more importantly, it’s typically sold in wider widths (I hate sewing). There are a bunch of ways to utilize fabric as a backdrop. The first way is to cover a (you guessed it) piece of foam core! You can glue or staple it on for a more permanent solution, but I like to attach it with Velcro so that the fabric can be swapped periodically—this cuts down on storage space and the amount of foam core your need.
You can also hang fabric like a curtain, pulled taught or stretched out to mimic a flat wall. This can be hung from a wall mounted curtain rod or on a backdrop stand. I will often sometimes use a curtain in conjunction with another backdrop and pull it off to the side to add some dimensionality to my background. Or you can add a bit of interest by covering a stool or an apple box with fabric as well.
Another option is a bit more labor intensive, but is also more customizable. The idea is to make essentially a large canvas stretched over a rack. The rack can be custom built to whatever size you need with some basic handyman skills and a few pieces of lumber. This site shows a useful tutorial for stretching a canvas which should give you the idea: http://www.craftsy.com/blog/2013/08/how-to-stretch-your-own-canvas/. Just remember that bigger canvases are more likely to rack so remember to add cross bracing for stability!
Cost: $5-50 – fabric (per yard); $20– foam core (4’x8’); $30 – rack materials
4) DIY Painted Canvas
Speaking of canvas, why not break out the rollers and paint your own? I know this seems like a daunting task, and there is definitely a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, it’s actually kind of fun. You can purchase canvas in wide cuts by the yard from a variety of places, including sites like https://www.bigduckcanvas.com/; or an even cheaper option is to grab some painter’s canvas dropcloths from your local Lowe’s or Home Depot. You’ll also want to grab a couple gallons of paint in the colors of your choice—to start off, I’d recommending getting three shades of the same color until you get a hang of the technique; then you can experiment with different colors and techniques. There’s no right or wrong way to paint a canvas so experiment with rollers, sponges and paint brushes to find what works best for you. Just make sure you blend well—texture tends to show up much more predominately on camera, particularly with directional light!
And in the spirit of shameless self-promotion…if you don’t feel like spending hours painting your own canvas, I’ll do it for you! Feel free to check out my Etsy page if you’re interested in your own custom painted backdrop: https://www.etsy.com/shop/CustomCanvasBackdrop?ref=hdr_shop_menu
Cost: $25 – canvas; $75 – paint & supplies