When I first started photographing people, I thought that I needed to purchase high quality commercial backdrops from well known companies. I really did not know the difference in materials or types of backgrounds were available, or even that I could create certain materials myself and still get great results. As time past, I learned a few things.
Things that I began to realize when purchasing backdrops included price, availability, colors, size, portability, durability and preparation for a photoshoot. Here is a quick summary of what I have learned after almost 7 years photographing people.
Local Fabric Stores
- Availability & color -If you have a local fabric store, there are often a wide variety of materials and prints that you can choose from ranging from floor covers to elaborate backdrops. Sometimes undyed muslin fabrics are available. Don't overlook bedsheets since they can often make great floor covers or even simple backdrops themselves. Often you can pick up a needed material at the last minute!
- Portability & Size - Most of the materials will be very portable. The downside to some fabrics is that they are limited in the width that you can purchase from the bolt. Some fabrics are limited to 3 - 5 feet in width.
- Durability and Project Prep - Depending upon the material, some are quite fragile while other materials can stand up to outdoor use many times. Some materials are more prone to wrinkles, so a portable steamer is always a good idea. Some materials can be reflective when using studio lighting.
- Price: Depending upon the material it can be very cost effective when compared to other sources ($ to $$)
- Availability & Color: Often colors and prints are only limited by your imagination. If you are creative and wish to purchase undyed muslin, you can even color it yourself. There are numerous on line locations to purchase muslins such as from Savage Universal.
- Portability and Size: Very portable and sizes vary to over 20 feet high!
- Durability and Project Prep: Some muslins come with a sewn in pocket which makes them very easy to hang from a stand. While certain muslins can be very thin and almost translucent, others can be heavier and very durable. Typically they are relatively easy to clean. The downside is that they wrinkle easily, and one must either steam wrinkles out or hang them overnight and roll the fabric prior to use. Most
- Price: Varies depending upon size and style from relatively inexpensive ($) to $$$.
Polyblends and Microfibers
- Availability and Colors - Often a blend of several fabrics and can be found in solid colors or with printed scenes on them such as holiday, outdoor, scifi ect..
- Portability and Size - Very portable again since these are fabrics and are typically available in a variety of sizes ranging from 3 feet to over 10 feet wide.
- Durability and Project Prep: Some products arrive from commercial sources sources and it can be difficult to get folds clear of the material especially with print products. Some printed products require careful handling to avoid fading of an image. The exception seems to be microfiber materials which often have few wrinkles, are lightproof and very durable.
- Price- Varies from $ to $$
- Availability and Colors - Available from a wide variety of photo supplies as well as from party shops in both solid colors as well as various prints.
- Portability and Size - Typically folded or rolled depending upon the size and may be available in small 3 foot lengths to over 10- 20 foot lengths of material.
- Durability and Project Prep: Some vinyl backdrops can be very thin and especially if shipped folded can be nearly impossible to remove wrinkles and folds. Other vinyl products are of better quality but still may suffer from folds. Vinyl is typically more reflective than cloth or paper counter parts, so lighting must be done much more carefully to avoid reflections. Care must be taken with certain products to avoid print images from fading.
- Prices - Varies $ to $$
- Availability and Color - Available from a wide range of photo in rolls of 5 ft lengths and 9 ft length. Almost all products are solid colors.
- Portability and Size - As mentioned above, the paper is typically supplied in rolls. This can be slightly problematic transporting 9 foot rolls for the location photographer, but typically works well in a fixed studio location.
- Durability and Project Prep: The good part about paper is that (if stored correctly) is wrinkle free and once hung on a stand or rack requires little other preparation. The paper does tear and paper on the floor can become dirty from staff walking on the skirt. It is relatively non reflective and can provide a nice even color for subjects.
- Prices: Typically $ to $$
I have used each of the above, and for traveling purposes and rapid setup the microfiber tends to work well, and of course with a little more prep muslins can produce a polished look. Don't overlook things like dark colored bedsheets for scarred flooring. When working in the studio, if a paper rack is available paper can often be changed easily and rapidly for a variety of seemless looks.