Background information about muslin, velour, canvas, and seamless backdrops. (UPDATED FOR 2014).
Ready to take the plunge and set up a studio? Yes you'll need to buy a set of lights (covered in depth in the Adorma Learning Center by Joe Farace in his excellent series on studio lighting), and the best camera to capture the images you desire, but what's behind the subject is as important as what's in front of it.
Backdrops come in a wide variety of sizes, and materials, and range from simple solids to subtle patterns, and even custom-painted, photo-realistic (or surrealistic) scenes.
If you’re just starting out, your studio may be a spare room, or the basement, or garage. If the rooms have multiple purposes, you need flexible setups that can be easily broken down and stored. (See Joe Farace's Portraits without a Studio from the Adorma Learning Center for an example.) This limits your choices, but not by much. If you have dedicated space, anything goes, limited only by your budget and commitment.
So, what kind of backdrops are out there, and which are best for you? Adorama carries an extensive selection of all varieties of backdrops, which you can find by browsing the Backdrop department of the Adorama Flash/Lighting Store; let us help you navigate, and narrow down, the choices.
Adorama Belle Drape Old Masters Series. Muslins have become a popular material for their light weight, relatively low cost, and versatility. This Abstract Art Series background is great for earthtone portraits.
Muslin is a lightweight material that can be used as a solid-looking background when hung flat, or can be draped over anything to transform the look of a picture. Because of the fabric's characteristics, its folds when draped over objects can be very appealing. Muslin material is considerably thinner and lighter than canvas, and doesn't show wrinkles as readily. By manipulating how it hangs and using directional background lighting techniques, you can use Muslin either as a neutral background or a very dramatic one.
Muslin backdrops come in an amazing variety of sizes and patterns. (In fact, there are nearly 2,000 different Muslins available at Adorama!) Sizes range from 5x8 to 30x30 feet, with prices ranging from around $20 for a simple 5x8-foot solid color backdrop to around $2400 for a 10x30 designer series patterned design. Many larger Muslins, because they are low-demand items, are made when ordered and shipped directly from the manufacturer. Since this could take up to five weeks, plan such orders carefully and well in advance of any anticipated need.
The Adorama Background Canvas 5'X7' Sherbert is a hand-painted custom background. Each one is slightly different.
Made of moderately thick, heavy material, canvas used to be the most popular of backdrops, but due to their bulkiness and cost, have been eclipsed in popularity by Muslins. Nevertheless, a good canvas backdrop will last a long time and provide a classy look to your scenes. While you can bring canvas backdrops with you, they are best suited for studio work since they easily wrinkle when stored in a duffel bag.
Some canvas backdrops include subtle patterns which provide an interesting but neutral background that does not fight with a portrait subject for attention. Darker backgrounds can be used for low-key lighting, while a lighter backdrop that is well lit can create a completely different hi-key mood. Canvas backdrops at Adorama range in price from around $135 for a 5x7 to $270 for a 8x8-foot cloth.
The Savage Red Oak Floor Drop is one of many convincing floor surfaces you can use
Sometimes the floor is just important as the backdrop. A relatively new item is the Floor Drop—a relatively thick surface with the image of a typical floor cover printed on it in a way that looks realistic in a photograph. You can have your subject stand on a hardwood floor, cobblestones or a sports field by simply swapping out the Floor Drop. Or, you can hang the floor drop and use it as a background.
The Savage Matt Vinish Pure White Infinity Series Vinyl background comes in several sizes, is glare-free, and is great for hi-key portrait photography.
Vinyl Backdrops are thick, rolled and durable, and are recommended for professional studio work. They generally come in solids but there are a few with printed patterns that can be very inexpensive. While most Vinyl backgrounds have a glossy sheen, some, including a recently announced line by Savage, are matte finished to eliminate glare and reflections. The biggest advantage of Vinyl backgrounds is that they are washable, usually with a damp sponge, and reusable, resulting in lest waste. Rolls are typically rolled up for storage to prevent wrinkles or breaks, and are hung from background poles just like other backdrops.
While there are plenty background discs with neutral designs, new collapsible backgrounds have funky distressed themes, such as this Urban Derelict Wall/Wooden Fence that set a tone for the photo.
Location photographers have come to rely on canvas backdrops on that collapse down to flat discs. Usually large enough to accommodate 2-5 sitters (depending on if it is vertical or horizontal, the material is stretched when opened, so wrinkles, a typical problem with standard canvas backdrops, is not an issue. They are light and convenient, and can be leaned against a wall or attached to a stand. There is a wide choice of backgrounds that give you a studio look anywhere, and most discs offer two color schemes and/or designs, one for each side. However collapsible discs are limited to a relatively small range of sizes since a big surface would be difficult to collapse.
Some foldable disc backdrops have "skirts" that extend in front of the backdrop on the floor, resulting in a seamless background for full-length subjects. Prices range from approximately $80 to around $165 for a 6x9 two-sided chromakey.
Seamless background paper comes in rolls, with typical widths of 26, 53, 107 or 140 inches (although there are some wide widths available. Rolls are usually 12, 35, or 50 yards long. Seamless paper is generally available in solid colors. Prices range from around $15 for short 26-inch rolls to around $190 for 50-yard 107-inch wide rolls.
The most popular color for seamless paper is white--no surprise—and the most popular width is 107 inches (a 12-yard roll of 107-inch-wide paper costs approx $35). This paper can be used for portraits, as well as for product/still life photography in smaller sizes. Most studio photographers keep several different rolls of seamless white paper available because it is so flexible (you can cut it to fit) and inexpensive. Prices range from only $15 for a 26"x12-yard roll to $190 for a 140"x34-yard roll.
If you are just starting out in studio photography, get a roll or two of seamless paper, and start with white and/or grey. You can build your collection from there as assignments warrant specific colors.
Just as with lighting systems and cameras, backdrops require some kind of support. These can be basic affairs that are easy to set up and break down and are well suited for location work, or sophisticated, permanent studio systems that can hold multiple backgrounds that can be raised or lowered either manually or at the flip of a switch. Some photographers get the lightweight systems so they can bring them on location, but also use them in their studios with sand bags at the base to keep them stable. A sophisticated studio support system can cost thousands of dollars, but a portable system shouldn’t set you back more than $100-250.