Lencarta Learning Centre – Lighting & Studio Photography

Tutorial: Getting a pure white background in a small studio space

pose_04A lot of people struggle to get good results when they create pure white background shots (which some people call high key shots) in a small studio space, and the poor quality of many of the photos gives white background shots a bad name – but, with care, and with a bit of help from the computer, it is possible to do it well even in small spaces.

The reason why so many professionals choose to shoot in large studios is that life is a whole lot easier with a lot of space between the subject and the background. This is because it isn’t just the subject (which I call the front subject) that needs to be lit, the background (which I call the rear subject) is a subject in its own right and needs to have its own, separate lighting, and it’s inevitable that some of the light aimed at the background will bounce off it and will hit the back of the front subject, where it will degrade or even destroy fine detail in both hair and clothes – and, the less distance there is between the front and rear subject, the worse this problem will be.

The solution is to use an absolute minimum of extra light on the background, so that little if any light that bounces back onto the front subject can cause this problem. If you look at online tutorials, Youtube videos and even on some websites that should know better, you’ll find that a lot of people say that there should be 2 stops ( 4 times as much) more light on the background than on the front subject, but frankly that’s nonsense, because it’s overexposing the background like this that causes the problems! There are 2 main problems:

Overexposed, single light

With the background overlit

  1. So much light hits the rear of the subject that fine edge detail, such as skin, hair and light clothing, is destroyed
  2. So much light hits the lens that lens flare is created, and overall contrast is severely reduced.

The photo on the left shows the result, all of the fine detail from my model’s hair has been destroyed – and that’s before I’ve actually added the light needed to photograph her – in the shot you see here, it’s just the background that has been lit, the light that is also hitting my model is just light that’s bounced off of the background. By the time light is added to her face, the situation will be even worse.

So, how should it be done?

  1. Get as much space as you possibly can between the subject and the background. All of the problems with reduced contrast, flare, wrap etc that commonly occur in white background shots are caused by light bouncing off of the white background and hitting the subject, so any extra space that you can create between the subject and the background will force the reflected light to travel further, and this will reduce or prevent these problems.
    2. Just use as little extra light as possible on the background. The background will end up as light grey, not white, but it doesn’t matter because it’s very simple to put that right on your computer later.

The necessary amount of overexposure, when shooting on digital, is in fact just 0.7 (or 2/3rds) of a stop, it’s all that’s needed and is also the highest level of overexposure that is likely to produce good results in a small studio.

Use your blinkies to get the exposure right
Enable the blinkies on your camera, so that the overexposed areas on the shot blink at you when you view the shot. As long as the area immediately behind your subject is overexposed enough to blink, you have enough over-exposure to do the job. Parts of the background that are not blinking will photograph as grey, but that is what you should be aiming for, not something that you should try to avoid. All that you then need to do is to lighten those areas in PP, which is a very quick and simple job.

How do you do that? All is explained in this video.