Some photographers have cases worth of fabrics that can be used for any number of reasons ranging from backdrops to props to clothing. It can get a little confusing though what to use for what purpose. Although this article is certainly not exhaustive, I will attempt to cover some of the basics.
- Muslin Strength: All around use Caution: Wrinkles easily
- Has long been to go-to fabric for backdrops for many photographers. It comes in a variety of sizes, colors, and patterns on each fabric. It is a woven fabric that drapes well and is pretty durable and lightweight. It is non reflective so typically one will not get hot spots on the fabric even when using harsh lighting. The downside to muslin is that it shows creases and fold pretty easily so it will be necessary to iron/steam out the creases for a smooth backdrop. Thinner muslins may leak light from other sources behind the material if not placed directly near a wall. May be hung, used as a prop, or even as a covering for someone to sit on.
- Canvas Strength: Very durable backdrop Caution: Storage
- Canvas is a painted fabric that is a fairly heavy material and very durable. It is cleaned fairly easily and for the most part is not reflective even with harsh lighting. It can come in a variety of sizes and colors much like muslin. It does show wrinkles and creases easily and often needs to be stored in a hanging position or rolled like paper. A study background stand is typically needed, especially for larger pieces of canvas. For the most part, this material is limited to a background and not always well suited as a prop or other covering.
- Velvet/Velour Strength: Rich looking, no wrinkles Caution: Cleaning
- Heavier than muslin but not quite so heavy as canvas, this material comes in a variety of colors with a very fine nap. Particularly the whites and the blacks make excellent backdrops. This material is generally limited to solid colors although may easily be available in a variety of sizes. The material will almost never show any evidence of wrinkles or creases, so it is easy to ball up and then pull out at a minutes notice. Cleaning may be a little tricky since the nap may pick up surface dirt and maybe tricky to clean. Although this may be used as a cover, placing heavy objects on top of it may leave imprints into the nap. Some varieties may show a vary slight reflection with hard light.
- Polyester and Cotton Strength: Variety Caution: Limited sizes, may wrinkle
- Although these materials are not commonly sold specifically for photography, they certainly have their place. Polyester materials typically do not crease but of course cotton can get very wrinkled. During the holidays fabric shop may sell holiday prints (eg. Halloween) that can not be found easily elsewhere. Sizes are often limited to a width of about 5 feet unless specially ordered. These fabrics are typically lightweight and soil fairly easily but are machine washable. Some bed sheets are made of cotton blends and may be used quite effectively as floor covers, or in some cases, backdrops themselves. Though fairly durable, the material is often lightweight. In some cases these materials can make excellent diffusers for lighting.
- Nylon Strength: Very strong Caution: May be limited to props or diffusers
- Used for props or diffusers more often than actual backdrops. This material is extremely durable, and a variety called rip-stop often has interwoven fibers that further increase it's strength. This material is typically somewhat shiny, so it may cause hot spots when photographed. It may pick up surface dirt, but is machine washable. The material can come in a variety of colors but size may be limited unless special ordered. Nylon materials are typically slightly heavier fabric when compared to polyester or cotton fabrics. It may also show creases unless blended with another fabric but only with heavy object placed on the folded fabric.
- Spandex Strength: Stretches easily Caution: Clothing or props
- Used almost entirely for clothing or special props, this fabric is very stretchy and lightweight. Typically will not crease and is fairly durable and can be machine washed. Sizes may be limited when purchased directly from a fabric store. It comes in a variety of colors.
Obviously there are many more fabrics available and a visit to your local dealer may have you wandering around for quite some time. So, which one is right for you?