by Joe Rooney, Jlrimages
Unfortunately, I don’t always have the opportunity or the budget to shoot on location. So most of the time that I work with models I do it in the studio.
However, I think you’ll agree with me that shooting on white or black seamless backgrounds gets pretty boring. So I’m constantly looking for ways to shoot in the studio without using seamless backgrounds, or at least make the experience of shooting on seamless less boring.
What follows are some of the ideas that I’ve come up with over the years to spice up the studio shoot. It is by far not a comprehensive list. Hopefully you readers can contribute some ideas of your own to make this article a valuable resource for those of us who don’t have the opportunity or budget to shoot outside of a photo studio. But first a few constraints.
A few years ago I had a studio of my own, sharing space with three or four other photographers. That gave me the opportunity to finish walls of the studio with different textures and looks. It also gave me the ability to build a temporary set in the studio, and store materials to make a set in the studio until it was time to put the set into place. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury anymore, and most rental studios won’t allow you to store materials in the studio when you aren’t shooting.
So the suggestions herein are limited to things that you can bring with you to a rental studio, set up and tear down reasonably quickly. In addition, I’ll suggest a couple ways to use seamless in ways that give you a different look than you may be used to.
1. Use Interesting Architectural Features of the Studio
Some of the studios that I use actually have some interesting architectural features that I can use to give a different look to my images. One of the studios I use is in an old warehouse, and has a beautiful window that makes for some wonderful natural light images. Rather than just use the window as a light source, I often make the window part of the image and sometimes add an artificial light source to balance the contrast of the image.
2. Make use of the Floor
Both of the studios I use have gorgeous wood floors. Instead of rolling the black seamless out, I draw it down to touch the floor. I pull my model a few feet away from the seamless and move my light close to the model. That lets me take advantage of the inverse square rule, and throw my background to black. That way, there is no need to Photoshop out the seam between floor and the seamless.
3. Shoot Down
If you have a nice floor, getting up on a ladder and shooting downward will enable you to make the floor your background.
In Dan’s “Anatomy of a Production Day” (ebook), Dan made use of the marble floor of the location he was shooting at. But even if you aren’t on location, hardwood floors, especially those that are highly waxed, make excellent backgrounds. Throw rugs are something that can be easily rolled up and transported to a shoot to add a bit of variety to shooting on the floor.
4. Use Fabric, Part 1
Another way shoot down is to make the floor look like a bed. Take a trip to your local fabric store. Fabrics that are satin like in appearance are less expensive than satin bed sheets, yet are virtually indistinguishable from them when photographed. Spread the fabric out on the floor, ensuring that you have ample folds in the fabric. You can add additional volume and a slightly different look by adding sheer fabrics of the same or contrasting colors.
When shooting fabric like this, don’t put the light directly overhead. Lowering the light a bit helps to enhance the folds in the fabric and adds volume. It also helps to bring the light source from slightly over the model’s head and down her body, as that places shadows in a more natural looking position.
5. Use Fabric, Part 2
After shooting your model from above, you can move the lights around and shoot her with the fabric on the floor. Particularly if you have some sheer fabric as well, you can add a little bit of interest to an otherwise boring white or black seamless background.
6. Use Fabric, Part 3
You could, of course, purchase some curtains and hang them up in the studio using a normal background stand. However, fabric is also a less expensive (and more compact) alternative to curtains, and can be hung up using normal studio background stands and A-clamps.
7. Use Fabric, Part 4
If you search through the offerings at your local fabric store (or their website), you can often find specialty fabrics that have a metallic look, or some kind of interesting texture that can add interest to the photo.
On both example shots below you can explore the textured background. Image left is a scan of a darkroom print solarized a la Man Ray. This is not Photoshop. Solarization involves exposing the photograph to light a second time before it is fully developed. You can see how the solarization process picked up the texture on the background. The right image is a beauty shot and consequently cropped tightly, but the background was two layers of textured fabric. My model, Ryan Leigh, has pulled one of the layers in front of her in this shot.
8. Use Window Blinds
You might find that your studio has a window with window blinds, and if you’re lucky it is long enough to extend to the floor. If not, a venetian blind is an inexpensive and relatively compact item to travel with, and you can hang it up on a normal studio background stand.
9. Use a Cucoloris
Sometimes called a “cookie” or a “gobo,” a cucoloris is something that is placed in front of a light source to cast a shadow pattern on a wall. The closer the light source is to the cucoloris, the sharper and more defined the shadow will be. Conversely, the further away the cucoloris, the less defined the pattern. Photo supply stores sell these premade in a variety of patterns, but you can easily make your own using foam core. Objects like plants and window blinds can be placed in between the light and the background (or even onto the model).
The resulting shadow patterns will break up the background and/or add to the mood of the image. When using cookies you have to use care not to let your main light bleed onto the background or you will wash out the effect.
10. Use the Walls
Even if the walls of the studio don’t have an interesting texture, you can still put them to use. Using a wall as a background allows you to place your model closer to the background and you can make use of lighting to cast shadows and add mood to the image. And, if you are lucky, the walls might be a different color than white or black.
11. Use Hard Light
One of the characteristics of hard light sources is that they cast well defined shadows. You can put this to work for you by positioning the light and your model so that the model’s shadows fall on the background. While this works best with a continuous light source that will let you see the shadow pattern, with practice you can anticipate where the shadow will be and what patterns are pleasing and add to the image.
12. Include the lights in the Shot
I’ve seen a number of examples around the internet and gave it a try. To keep the light stands out of the shot, I wrapped the stands in black fabric (the black cover of a foldable reflector works good for this as well). If you use care to keep the key light from spilling on to the background, you won’t even have to do much in the way of Photoshop to take the light stands out of the image. Playboy Magazine has done this in the past, giving it a “behind the scenes” treatment to the real shoot.
13. Use V Flats in the Shot
Some studios have v-flats available. White v-flats act as reflectors while black ones normally act as flags. However, you can put the v-flat in the shot to split the background between black and white. Even if you don’t have black v-flats at your studio, you can create differences in shade by lighting the seamless and leaving the v-flat unlit.
That’s it for now. I hope you got some inspiration and ideas.
Thanks for reading and sharing your ideas and comments!