A Short Course Book
Digital Desktop Studio Photography
The Complete Guide To Lighting and Photographing Small Objects with your Digital Camera

Choosing a Background

 
Background stands can hold rolls of paper in almost any color. Courtesy of Smith-Victor.
 
 
Art supply stores often have leftover pieces cut from large sheet of poster board sheets that you can use for small setups.
 
 
A light box used for a shadowless background.
 
 
Bogen makes collapsible backgrounds. Courtesy of Bogen Photo Corp.
 
 
Interest is added by photographing an old photo against the title page of a book written by the subject of the photo. It puts the item in context.
 
 
The camera in this photo was shot with the background burned out so it's silhouetted.
When photographing objects, they stand out better when placed in front of the appropriate and properly lit background. The goal is to have a background that doesn't distract from the main subject. If possible it should enhance the subject, but at the very minimum it should be neutral.

Background Materials

One of the most widely used background materials is poster board from an art supply store, where it's usually found in a spectrum of colors. For larger objects, professional photographers use seamless paper that comes in rolls up to 140" wide. Stands are available to hold a roll of seamless paper at the proper height and make it easy to pull off clean, new paper when needed — somewhat like pulling a paper towel off a roller.

The color and tone of your background is important. Backgrounds come in a wide variety of colors and even patterns, but white, gray, and black are good choices for most subjects. You can also use color poster board, or place filters over the background light to add color to a white background. If you use colors, you need to consider how the background color relates to the color of the subject you are photographing.

In some cases, you may want to use unusual materials for your background. Cloth, slate, tiles, wood, and almost any other material can work if it complements the subject and is well lit. In other cases you may want to add other elements to the setup to invoke a mood. For example, an expensive pen might be shown in a rich setting with fine grained wood and leather bound books.

Background Lighting

The lighting of the background is as important as the lighting of the subject. The most common techniques are to have it evenly lit, graduated lighting, or dropped out.
  • Graduated lighting is created by curving the background into a sweep and positioning a light away from the top of the curved background and pointing down. This projects more light on the lower part of the background making it go from darker at the top to lighter at the bottom. If necessary, you can tape a piece of tinfoil to the side of the lamp facing the background to keep it from shining on the top part of the background. You may want to raise the subject up from the background on a piece of glass or plexiglass so the light can sweep under it.
  • Shadowless lighting captures the subject against a pure white or colored background so it seems to float on the page. One way to do this is to place a light so the background is overexposed and burned out. Some people feel that a drop shadow in front of the subject adds "weight". To do this, you place the main light above and behind the subject. You can use a fill light or reflectors to add light to the front of the subject.
The easiest way to get shadowless lighting is to place the subject on a raised translucent plexiglass panel lit from below. If you are displaying images on the Web, you can use this same concept to make a subject appear to float on the background. One color, the pure white background, can be designated as the transparent color that the background shows through. You can shoot for a transparent GIF against any background as long as it's perfectly uniform. For other uses you may want the background to be pure white without any detail—basically a burned out highlight.

Here the background was a sheet of neutral gray poster board (top) and slate (bottom).

To create a dropped-out background (right), you can place the subject on a sheet of plexiglass and light it from below (left).


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