Studio Backgrounds / Backdrops Explained

Every time we take a picture, our subjects are posed against some sort of background or backdrop, be it in their natural surroundings, a Studio Background / Backdrop or apparently isolated (on a white background for instance), this article will concentrate on commercially available Studio Backgrounds / Backdrops rather than Natural Surroundings.

There is an absolutely HUGE range of Studio Backgrounds / Backdrops available to the Modern Studio Photographer from Colorama, Interfit, KARLite and Lastolite to name a few, covering almost every event imaginable! To make things simpler we can break down the current market offerings into several categories;
 
      Paper
      Vinyl
      PVC
      Curtains
      Hi-Lites
      Collapsibles




Each Background / Backdrop type is described in more detail below, scroll down or "click" on the hyper links above for each type to get to that section
Paper
Paper Roll Studio Backgrounds / Backdrops Paper is a "disposable" Studio background supplied in standard sized rolls and is ideal for flat Matt images without any need to worry about creases - Perfect for High / Low Key & Chromakey Work.  It is the preferred medium for most Studios and in the UK and is supplied predominantly by Colorama and Lastolite, there are cheaper brands available but care should be taken over evenness of the colour shade, thickness, exact shade matching from one roll to the next etc, high key picture taken against white paper roll
ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
Flat and Crease Free Cannot be used on deep pile carpets, as it can be easily punctured by tall shoe heels
Even colour across the entire width and length Not very portable - i.e. 2.72m STD width will not fit in most cars or fit into most people's lounges (for the Portable Studio Photographer).
Tear off sections of the paper as it gets dirty Disposable Item - so costs can mount over a period of time
Wide Range of Colours available Storage of multiple colours can be difficult.
Easy to use Can get "dirty" very quickly with certain subjects (Children/Animals etc)

Available in the following sizes
 
Width (m) Length (m) Roll Size Name Maximum No of Adults
in 1 row Across
Width (ft) Length (ft)
1.35 11 Half Width 1 4ft 5in 36ft
1.72 11 3/4 Width 2 5ft 7in 36ft
2.72 11 Standard Width 3 9ft 36ft
2.72 25 Standard Width Long 3 9ft 82ft
2.72 50 Standard Width XL 3 9ft 164ft
3.55 33 Super Wide Width 4 11ft 7in 108ft

Vinyl
Lastolite Vinyl Roll Studio Vinyl Background / Backdrop Rolls are hard wearing and available in a limited number of colours (White/Black/Grey/Chroma Green) usually 2.72m wide x 6m long.  Taking the best properties of Studio Paper Rolls these are semi disposable and as a rule of thumb will last about the same amount of time as 7-10 paper rolls.  Their "wipe clean" properties make them ideal for dirtier subjects far outlasting paper rolls in those scenarios.  Their weight (approx 18kg) make them extremely UNPORTABLE and it usually takes 2 people to fit one to a suitable support and get it into position  Fixed Studio Use only. Available from Colorama & Lastolite Vinyl Roll Background / Backdrop in Use
PVC
colorama matt pvc sheet Used for Studio Product Photography, these small background sheets come in Matt, Gloss and Graduated variants to create the desired effect allowing for wipe clean long term use.  Available from Colorama & Interfit colorama gloss pvc sheet

Curtains Curtain backdrops / backgrounds contain a huge range of products falling into the four main categories below, their main advantages are that they are relatively cheap to produce allowing for literally tens of thousands of designs.  The fact that they are material based ,means that they can be folded, making for great portability and storage and being material they can be produced in much bigger sizes (The Karlite Curtain range for instance, go from 2.6mx2.6m to 6mx6m).  Traditional curtains should be made from 100% cotton muslin although there are some non-muslin variants on the market that  get round one of their major pitfalls - CREASES, examples of these include Lastolites Knitted Backgrounds and the material used on Karlite's Plain Collapsible Backgrounds.  Be wary of Muslin backgrounds / backdrops that claim to be totally crease free - this is extremely unlikely unless the material is so thin as to be translucent.  Muslin Curtain Backdrop / Backgrounds are available from Interfit, KARLite and Lastolite
Plain Backgrounds with similar uses as Paper Rolls, these are much more portable and are available in much greater sizes, available from Interfit, KARLite and Lastolite plain studio backdrop / background curtain
Dyed A huge range of Backgrounds / Backdrops is available within this category in all thicknesses of Muslin, these are normally hand dyed in the Asian sub-continent which means that no two curtains are ever the same, a uniqueness that appeals to most photographers.  Lastolite curtains are the exception, as these are printed and therefore each one is identical to the next.  Known as traditional Background / Backdrop curtains.  Available from Interfit, KARLite and Lastolite dyed muslin studio backdrop / background curtain
Spray Dyed Again a huge range of Studio backdrops / backgrounds available in this type, here the backdrop is initially dyed and then spray painted to create the desired effect.  With the exception of KARLite curtains, these are rarely machine washable. Available from KARLite. spray dyed muslin studio backdrop / background curtain
Scenic These Muslin background / backdrop curtains are hand air sprayed by artists to create a "dreamy" photographic effect.  Extremely effective when used correctly.  Ideal for event work. Sometimes also known as "Old Masters" backdrops / Background Curtains.  Care should be taken to purchase these from a reputable dealer as not all "artists" are capable of spray painting to the same level of quality.  There are many examples of cheap versions being bought on the likes of eBay direct from USA/China/India, only for the purchaser to be disappointed on receipt - buyer beware!
Available from KARLite
Scenic muslin studio backdrop / background curtain
Photo Realistics
New to the market, these backdrop / Background curtains are actual photographs that are digitally printed onto a specially coated material.  There are thousands available (KARLite has access to over 3000 different ones).  I deal for event/Glamour and wedding work where they offer the wedding photographer a weather and venue  independent choice of backgrounds for that "special" day. The level of detail can be amazing.
Only available in the UK from KARLite.
Photo realistic studio backdrop / background curtain
Fantasy backgrounds Used over another base background such a paper roll.  These are made from a very thin translucent material that has the ability to  change colour depending upon the thickness of the material in use (folded over itself several times) and also on the background roll colour.  The possibilities are endless.  Ideal for Glamour work and for creating a dreamy look - such as would be used with either a wedding dress or tutu shot.  Available in many different shades/colours.
Available from KARLite.
 Fantasy Cloth studio backdrop / background curtain
Hi-Lites
Lastolite Hi-Lite hilite The Lastolite HiLite backgrounds range allows the photographer to work in a way that was extremely difficult to achieve in the past, ‘High Key’ photography on location and in restrictive spaces. By rear lighting the white background itself there is no longer a need to use a background light behind the subject. Furthermore, because the background is actually illuminated it means the subject can stand virtually right in front of it without casting a shadow. The HiLite backgrounds also works as a large rear softbox and illuminates the subject as well, meaning you can use just one other flash head to light the subject from the front. What’s more, the whole thing is collapsible.
Can be suspended on a portable background support system and can even be used as a very large softbox.  Available from Lastolite
  glamour shot taken with lastolite hi-lite hilite
Collapsibles
karlite 1821bwt collapsible black white background backdrop These Studio Backdrops / Backgrounds are designed to collapse into a circle about a third of the size of the background when open.  Available in both plain and dyed colour versions, with or without a train (bit you stand on) these are ideal for portable studio work.  Disadvantage being the opened size, only really suitable for singles - couples at a push.   Available from Interfit, KARLite and Lastolite           lastolite collapsible background backdrop

Ok, so we now know that there are many different types of Studio Backgrounds / Backdrops that we can use for our Portrait Photography - but which one do we use?

We can only give general advice as Photography is an art form and no two people will necessarily agree on what makes for a good background, each Event, Studio Session etc is different depending upon what you are trying to convey in your pictures - mood, effect etc.  But you wouldn't generally use a Photo Realistic backdrop of a Wild West scene to shoot a wedding unless specifically asked to, by the wedding party!  As a rule of thumb, you should begin with White, Black, Grey & Blue backgrounds in your collection.

The table below gives our advice on the types of Backgrounds / Backdrops and where they should and shouldn't be used, as far as we can;

Event Paper Roll Vinyl HiLite Plain Curtain Dyed Curtain Spray Dyed Curtain Scenic Curtain Photo Realistic Curtain Fantasy Cloth Collpasibles
Hi-Key
Low Key
Single Portrait
Passport Shot
Group Shot
Glamour Shot
Event Work
Wedding Dress
Animal Shots
Children
Corporate
Portable Studio
Fixed Studio
"Dirty Work"