In part one of this series I go through the space considerations and gear needed to shoot on white seamless. I also demonstrate the basics of exposure using video lights. Be sure to check out that post. You can do so right here.
Lighting white seamless can be a bit tricky when you’re just getting started. Stick with it, though, and you’ll get it. What makes this more challenging is doing this in a small space and/or doing this without a flash meter. The more space you have to work in, along with having a good flash meter on hand, will make this easier for you. If you are looking for a good meter I suggest starting with a Sekonic L-308S. As you can see in the video above I walk through the process without a meter.
I’m going to break down the thought process you need to work through step by step here:
• Set up your white seamless background. For this I’ve been using the Photo Basics 9×20 high key white fabric background.
• You want your subject to stand at least nine feet from your background. The closer they are to the background the more difficult it will be to keep your background lights from hitting them and the light from that background is going to wrap around them more since they are closer to it. The further they are from the background the easier it is to control the background lights and minimize excessive wrap and flare from that background. You cannot defeat the inverse square law. Get your subject separated from that background.
• Put one light on each side of the set for the background and make sure those lights are NOT hitting your subject. Stand where your subject will be standing. Face the background from that position. Can you see your background lights hitting you? Can you see the front of the flash / strobe / hot light? If yes, do something to fix that. You do NOT want those lights hitting your subject. Use flags. Use barn doors. Use something to keep those lights on the background and away from your subject. You want these background lights to be about six feet from the background and positioned in a way where they are covering the whole thing. Start by pointing both of them to the middle and then tweak from there as needed.
• Now place your main light. This can be anything. Softbox. Umbrella. Beauty dish. A main light and a fill. Whatever light you want on your subject, set up that light. Right now it doesn’t matter if that light is hitting the background. This is the light for your subject. We’re taking this pure white right now.
• Get your subject in place. Turn your background lights OFF. Find your exposure on your subject. Get that locked down. You aren’t going to touch that again if all of this goes well. Let’s say that exposure is f 5.6. If you have a meter then you want your lights to get to f 8.5 evenly across your background. Not f11.5 on one side and f 8 on the other. If your main light is metering at f4 then you want your background to be f 5.6 1/2. Or… f 7.1’ish.
• No light meter? Continue reading but make sure Matthew Jordan Smith isn’t standing around or he’ll berate you for not owning a flash meter. 🙂 And he’ll tell you that 1.5 stops is too much. I’ll say it isn’t. I’ll say it’s just right. Take half of what he says and half of what I say and you’ll find the truth in there somewhere. 🙂
• Now that your main light is set and your subject is properly exposed. Turn your background lights on. You want to keep them set to the same power and start them on a lower power setting. If one is set to 1/32nd power then set the other to 1/32nd power. Take a test shot. If your background is not white then increase each background light just to the point that your background blows white. If you have blinking highlights as a feature on your camera turn that on. You want to sneak those background lights just to the point that background starts blinking. Here is what it looks like from having your background lights too bright to just right.
• A note on lenses here. Some lenses are better at this than others. This comes down to the quality of the optics and the quality of the coatings. Remember that you are shooting into a light source with this set up. I have found some of my lenses perform better than others. Back in my Nikon days my Nikon 50mm 1.8 absolutely sucked at this when my 35mm f2 lens was perfect. My 85mm 1.8 did a pretty good job but had a bit of chromatic aberration that could be fixed in post. If you feel you have nailed the proper ratio from subject to background (1.5 stops Matthew Jordan Smith) and you’re having flare issues, chromatic aberrations, and all the rest of that mess then try another lens.
• Once you get those background lights to pure white (and not beyond that) then you are set. Shoot away!
• Note – Maybe you want that washed out look for one reason or another. That’s fine. Now you know how to get there. Then your client says they don’t want that washed out look. Great. Now you know how to back off of it.
Let’s say you get your background lights all the way to full power and you still aren’t getting a blown out white background. The issue here isn’t that your lights aren’t firing. 🙂 No. The issue here is your main light, the one on your subject, is too bright. You don’t have enough power on the background lights to get to that 1.5 stop ratio. The background needs to be 1.5 stops brighter than the subject. Not half a stop. Not one stop. A minimum of 1.5 stops. If you can’t add more power to the background then you have to reduce the power of the light on your subject. Once you do that then you should be able to get to your desired 1.5 stop ratio.
If you feel you have gotten all of this correct and it’s still not working for you, or you’re having issues, here are the things to check. 1) Your background lights are not hitting your subject. Double check that. 2) Your subject is too close to the background. 3) That lens issue I described above. 4) If you are seeing that loss of contrast on your subject bring the power of the background light down. 5) Double check to make sure your background lights are symmetrical in power. Make sure one isn’t set to full power and the other background light is set to 1/16th power.
If you are doing this with TTL I don’t know what to tell you. God’s speed to you and have fun. +1 on the back group? -1 on the front? And then it changes on you for no damn reason? Call Joe McNally. He’s the only one I’ve ever seen make that shit work on a consistent basis.
Is your floor going pure white? No? Do you have tile board? No? Go get some tile board.
Tile board is your friend. It’s also known as thrifty white panel board. It’s a thin (about 1/8th inch thick) smooth 4 foot by 8 foot sheet of chipboard that is glossy white on one side and basic chipboard brown on the other side. It can be found in the paneling section, the plumbing section, or the lumber section of many large home improvement stores. I probably get more questions about this one piece of kit then anything else I’ve ever owned. For this application it works better than plexiglas ever will and it’s far cheaper than a big sheet of plexi.
You want to position your tile board so the back edge of it is getting hit with the background lights. You don’t want it in front of that line. Sneak it in to the line of sight of your background lights so that back edge is blown to white with the rest of the background.
Do not shoot from a high shooting position. That tile board is reflecting the background and thus snapping to white. If your background is pure white and your tile board is grey try lowering your shooting position until you find that happy spot of the reflection snapping to white. Otherwise you’ll have to make it white in post production or get super crazy and technical and pop extra light on the floor without lighting your subject. It can be done. Requires more gear and 118 expletives. I’m not even going to start so don’t ask. Just lower your shooting position and be done with it.
“But Zack! Lowering your shooting position means……”
Just lower your shooting position, fix it in post, or light the floor.
If you are working in a small area with a low ceiling and everything around you is painted white then realize you are standing inside of a softbox. You’ve got light bouncing all over the place and you need to bring that under control. That’s why you see those black backgrounds on each side of my set in my small studio area. Those are there to minimize all the light bouncing around and eventually finding it’s way back to my subject. My ceilings are high enough that I typically don’t have to worry about that. There was one shoot that I wanted a pure silhouette so I flew another one of those black backgrounds over my set, pulled the ones on the side in close, and that did that trick.
If you can’t find tile board or the stuff you find is half an inch thick then what you want is a smooth glossy white surface. Buy some 4×8 sheets of thin chipboard that is smooth on one side and paint it with a high gloss white paint. That can work. Also, try Peter Hurley’s ProBoard. It rolls up and is easy to transport. The one issue is it can be a bitch to lay flat. Set it out and sandbag it as far in advance to your shoot as possible to get it flattened out. Keep some sandbags on hand during the shoot to keep it flat if needed. I’ve used this on location when I couldn’t transport 4×8 sheets of tile board. Tile board is my favorite. If you can find it… awesome! If not, make something glossy white. Plexi won’t do it.
The more area of floor you see in your shot the more tile board you will need. It’s not uncommon for me to have three sheets of the stuff on the floor. Two as a minimum. I used one in the video above to show what the floor does without it.
Continuous Lights vs. Strobes vs. Hotshoe Flash
I’ve been asked if it’s easier, or preferred, to use continuous lights for this kind of photography vs. flash. While it can be done with continuous lights, the best thing to use is studio strobes with modeling lights. That’s the best. You get to use low ISO’s and faster shutter speeds and the modeling lights on the strobes help you get everything placed as needed.
With continuous lights you will find yourself shooting higher ISO’s and lower shutter speeds to get a good exposure unless you have some big ass continuous lights. 750w lights were used in part one of this series for video. I’d want nothing less than that. A couple CFL bulbs? No. Can you do it? Yes. Is it going to be super awesome and crisp? Well, you be the judge… NSFW. Also note that if you are doing this in an area with a lot of available light that you cannot control then you have to have enough power coming from those continuous lights to overpower that ambient. That’s A LOT of light. I’ve watched several YouTube videos of people trying this with a bunch of cheap lights and while they claim it’s awesome, the truth is, and I say this respectfully, much of it looks like shit.
You can pull this off with hotshoe flashes as well but strobes are still the best option. I’ve been asked if it can be done with a mix of continuous lights and strobes as well. It can. Peter Hurley does this with head shots with Kino flos (continuous lights) on the subject and strobes on the background. But look at those Kinos. Those aren’t cheap ass CFL lights from eBay or clamp lights from Home Depot. Those are Kinos. KEEEENOOOOOSSSS. They are top notch pro lights.
“But Zack! You can get some fluorescent light fixtures from Home Depot and ….”
Stop. Stop what you are doing. Take a deep breath. It’s going to be ok.
You can pull this off in all sorts of ways. Light is light. The question is how difficult do you want to make this for yourself. You can go the cheap route and curse like a f*cking sailor or you can get three decent strobes and call it a day. I watched one video where someone set this all up with 22 clamp lights and two floor lamps and it looked horrible. Yet, there they stood quite proud of themselves. Did it work? Yes. Did it look good? No. Three used Lowel Tota lights and a diffusion panel would have done the job better for the same money in less time resulting in better results.
There are cheap ways to do things and inexpensive ways to do things and if you don’t know the difference between those you will eventually figure it out.
If you are staying away from strobes and flashes because they are intimidating and they scare you then I want to encourage you to get over that fear. Get. Over. It. Don’t let fear and intimidation stop you from mastering your craft. I went to public school in the south and if I can do it so can you.
I’m not saying that to be a great photographer you have to shoot this. Not saying that at all. You may hate this look. I wonder why you are still reading this if you do but know this, the day might come when you need to pull this look off because it’s a good job on the line and you have bills to pay. It’s a damn good thing to know from time to time. I get a lot of work doing this exact thing.
To go from a white background to a black background you now need to turn your background lights off, keep your subject separated from that background by some distance, and make sure the light on your subject does not hit the background. If light doesn’t hit the background then it will not be exposed in the photo. Watch part one of this series to see it happen in real time by using something to flag the main light off of the background and / or utilizing the inverse square law to help you get that background to go dark.
Note that, when using strobes, ambient light has never been a factor in any of these photographs so shutter speed isn’t of a concern unless you are trying to do this in a brightly lit environment. You aren’t changing the density of the backdrop with shutter speed. You are adding light to that background (taking it grey to white) or keeping light off that background (making it darker). You can flag your light or feather a softbox off of the background or use a grid in a softbox or octa or similar or just use straight flash with a grid. There are a number of ways to achieve this. Note… using something like a shoot through umbrella will be a pain to flag off of a background due to the inherent nature of how something like that works. Softboxes, octas, grids, etc. are best suited for this.
There are days when you absolutely nail the white seamless look. The floor is perfect. The background is perfect. The contrast is perfect. There’s not a single thing wrong with the frame. Then there are the rest of the days called Sunday through Saturday. Back when I had a twenty foot wide cyc wall I had very little clean up to do when I shot this. Shooting on a nine foot background in a tight space usually means some little something needs to get cleaned up. For pure white or pure black backgrounds this is easily accomplished. Check out the video above to see how I accomplish this in Photoshop.
In the video I mention a something to consider if you are displaying pure white background images on a web site with a pure white background. Without designating a border or boundary to the photo then it bleeds into the page where you are displaying it. I handle that in one of two ways. I either add a small stroke around the border of the image or I bring the highlight output in levels down a bit. There’s no wrong way or right way to do this but just consider the background your images will be displayed on and you might want to do a little something to them to help them look better. Here’s a side by side look at the two ways of doing it. Stroke on the left. Highlights output set to 248’ish on the right.
I’m going to leave this area for Q&A about shooting on a white seamless. I’ll update this from comments that you leave below. If there is anything you would like further explanation about or you have run into issues not covered here then let me know and I will update this section of the post as they come in!
What software were you using in sync with the Phase to see it directly in Mac to check focus and exposure?
In this video I’m using Capture One. When shooting with cameras other than the Phase One I typically use Lightroom. LR and the Phase don’t play as well together so I use C1 for that.
Further question… not using your Fujis for the shots…?
I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the Fuji Lightroom plugin on my laptop for tethering. So… Phase One it is since I no longer own a DSLR capable of tethering.
Really really really dumb question, but how far away are you from the subject for full length shots?
With my 5D and 50mm what sort of height should my camera be? In portrait orientation centre focus point around the stomach area? then the subject is evenly spread through the frame making the most of all the pixals on my crappy 5D classic? or is it ok to stand and just point the camera down a little?
Feel free to come take my camera off me, tie a brick to it and throw it in the lake for asking a question like that.
Ha! Not a dumb question. We all started somewhere and hopefully we are moving forward from there. You can keep your camera. For full length with a normal lens my camera is about 15 or so feet from the subject. You just want a bit of space above their head and then some reflection at the bottom. I always focus on the eyes. As for height of the camera, just imagine taking a knee and shooting from there.That’s about right for me. If you stand and point it down you’ll probably not get that floor to snap to white. And… that 5d classic was awesome when it came out. Guess what? It’s still awesome. How great that camera is has not changed.
Q: for your background exposure of 1.5 stops above key, if we’re using a flash meter, is this an incident or reflective reading?
I would assume that depending on the reflective nature of the background – super white savage seamless paper vs bedsheet – would impact how much light we need on the background.
I think I saw a Kirk Tuck blog post a few years back saying that for him, +2/3 stops (incident) above key on super white paper was enough for pure white.
When I use a meter it is almost always in an incident mode. How well a background snaps to white is dependent on the material I suppose. As to the 1.5 stops or +2/3’s stop do some experimentation. I’ve always taken it to 1.5 stops and that’s where I like it. It all snaps to white an I can maintain good contrast on the subject.
I’ve heard some photographers say you should take it two stops. I’ve heard some say you should never take it to 255 white in camera and do that in post instead. I once heard a photographer say that they must have a minimum of three stops difference but they prefer four stops. I think that’s a bit extreme. Kirk is a good dude so if he snaps his to white at +2/3 I’m not going to get in an argument about it. You want it to go to white? Increase your lights on the background right to that point it goes to white and no more unless you want that overblown background look.
I would be very interested in your view on the role that the raw converter and dynamic range of the camera (or film) plays in choosing the ratio for the background lights.
The in-camera blinking highlights usually use the in-camera JPEG conversion, not which values are actually clipping in the raw file. Different raw converters then come in with different ways of dealing with highlight detail. For instance, recent ACR/Lightroom releases try very hard to recover every bit of highlight detail by default, which is nice in theory, but it is kind of counter-productive for white seamless. Therefore relatively speaking, the background lights need to be quite a bit brighter in order to clip in the raw conversion since adjusting any sliders like “Highlights” or “Whites” would also affect the subject. But brightening the background in turn leads to a loss of details in the transition area, which increases ugly hair syndrome.
I don’t shoot a whole lot of white seamless and haven’t done any with C1 recently, but I vaguely remember something about the software being better at recovering highlight detail than ACR/LR. I think it also tends to leave white backgrounds alone a bit more.
In that video you are linking to, Matthew Jordan Smith is using a Sony camera, which has different dynamic range (I’d guess maybe a stop lower than for example Nikon, probably even more compared to Phase One). So maybe it’s a combination of these factors that lead Matthew Jordan Smith to recommend a different ratio.
You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a
Sicilian Sony photographer when death white seamless is on the line”!
You are absolutely correct in your thinking in all of this. I didn’t get into this because A) I would lose readers and B) I wouldn’t be invited to parties. I kid! I kid! The PhaseOne camera can be a pain because as soon as you think you have blown it to white there’s actually plenty of “detail” still in that image file. I put “detail” in quotes because, well, there isn’t much detail in a white background but there is plenty of information in there.
Yes the blinking highlights are coming from a JPG and you might find that once you start working on the RAW image the background never went pure white. Once that happens to you though you’ll figure it out and remember that the next time you’re shooting and you’ll add just a bit more light to that background.
The other reason I didn’t get into this is because people will be doing this with every combination of lens, camera, film, and editing software out there on the market today and it would be pretty ridiculous to try to map out ratios for all of these iterations of image making options. Get your background lights to the point where it snaps to white and call it a day… whatever ratio you find that to be true for your particular camera.
When you were doing your comparisons of lit backgrounds, I did notice that there was some spill affecting her shadow areas, even at your ideal exposure of 1/4 power compared to the pure black, but whatevs.
Yep. To further control that spill I would need to get Paige further away from the background, pull the black curtains in closer maybe or add some black flags just off each side of her to kill the spill. I wanted to make this tutorial more of an introduction to all of this than a full in depth every-single-thing-in-the-world-you-can-do-in-this-situation kind of a thing. Get the basics down and you’ll be able to tweak it as needed from there.
• Apologies for the video artifacts in the video. When Apple updated to 10.9.3 something broke between Premiere and Apple and the AMD video cards my MacPro has. It’s a well documented issue with very few workarounds right now. Hopefully it will be fixed soon. If anyone has a 10.9.2 bootable thumb drive you could hook me up with I would appreciate it!
I hope you have enjoyed this series and I hope you are enjoying #LightingWeek here on DEDPXL! Just a quick reminder that OneLight V2.0 is on sale this week!
Again, hit me up with questions, concerns, or comments below!