Home Studio Redux - Black Backdrop

If you were in Vancouver this winter, you'd know it was both unusually cold and snowy.  Thankfully, I manage to pick up a black matte seamless paper backdrop (7 feet wide) and I used this multiple times this past season all whilst exploring different lighting setups. 

Keeping Things Black

One of the most important things for shooting a black backdrop is to actually make the backdrop come out black.   The simplest way is to ensure that your key light is much closer to your subject than your backdrop.  Surprisingly, this distance is achievable even in a small home studio.  Here's a photo of the full setup:

Yep, that all important heater to keep things toasty.

Yep, that all important heater to keep things toasty.

There a quite a few lights and props here, so let's go through each one of these one at a time, in the order you should setup the lights:

  1. The chair - yes, this is the most important part.  Keep this away from the backdrop and locate your key light as close as possible to the chair.  
  2. Key light (upper left) - Here I used an AlienBee 1600 strobe in a beauty dish.  Feel free to use any other type of modifier that you want.  Set this to the correct exposure for the subject sitting in the chair.  Important bit: If the light is far enough from the backdrop, it will fall into black.  If the backdrop is coming out grey still, move the chair and the keylight farther away.

The rest of the setup is optional and set these up completely to your own taste:

  1. Reflector (just underneath the key light) - use this to balance out some of the shadows.  Feel free to not use this or even use another light here
  2. Separation light left (big umbrella in the background) - this is for putting in some separation light on the left side of your subject. Adjust power to taste.
  3. Separation light right  (the strip box to the right) - I don't have a second umbrella and a stripbox with an AlienBee 800 works just as well here.  Adjust power to taste.
  4. Backdrop light (behind the chair) - I placed a small speedlight to add a splash of light on the backdrop.  This will create a ball of halo around the subject.  Experiment with different power settings, zoom settings and modifiers.  For example, adjusting the position can get you different size halos.  Here I'm using a Manfrotto 5001B lightstand.  I like this style of lightstand because the legs can be placed flat on the ground and makes it easier to hide behind the subject.  Thus require little to no photoshop cloning to get rid of it.

So with different combination of key light modifiers and any number of the optional reflector and lights, you can get quite a few different looks out of the setup.

Example 1 - With Just One Separation Light

Here are some example shots from just using one separation light either to the right or to the left side of the subject:

Oh yeah, and with this big of a backdrop, you can actual get full length portraits as well.

Example 2 - Both Separation Lights

Here's what it can look like with both separation lights on:

Example 3 - Turning on all the Lights

Here's what it looks like once you add all of lights and with the halo effect

Finally here's what happens if you push the halo light power up quite a bit. You can end up turning your black backdrop into a grey backdrop, which could be handy if you don't own a grey background.

Model: Tina Toso

Feel free to creatively move the lights around once you've got the basic setup going. Happy shooting everyone and keep exploring!

Home Studio - Turn Your Hallway into a Backlit Setting

Wow it's been quite a while since I've posted - think newborn and not getting to shoot much, let alone blog about it! Ok, so the kid is a lot of fun I have to admit, but sometimes we still need our own adult time...

Backlight Setup

Anyways, I'd thought I would share an idea I had of turning a plain old white hallway in my home into a nice white backlit area for photos. A backlit photo is where the main light is coming in front behind the subject.  Here's an example below.  The rest of the results are at the end of the blog.

Model: Angel Yang, MUAH: Alina Amison

So in order for you to light the subject, you have to surround them with a reflective surface so that light spills and wraps around them.  A white wall or an off-white wall is ideal so that you don't get a strange color cast on your subject's skin. Here's a lighting diagram:

  1. Key/main light - placed around the corner and out of sight.  Here I set an Alien Bee 1600 to 1/2 power.
  2. An optional fill light - this is completely optional and depends how far in the subject is placed.  The farther into the corridor, the more the light wraps around. It also depends on the amount of shadow you want on the subject. Here I used an Alien Bee 800 with a bounce umbrella.

Now the downside of this is that hallways tend to be narrow in homes (we're talking Vancouver real estate here people!) and while this setup is great for portraits, you might get some unwanted stuff in the background.  Here's a straight out of camera shot from the above:

Oh yeah, look at that wall on the left, the drain access cover and the plug...

Some Photoshop Skills Required...

So yeah, the initial image needs some work and thankfully, Photoshop comes will some nice cloning tool to take care of the some of the items like that electrical plug.  But extending the wall to the left and getting rid of that big drain cover is going to take something else.  Luckily, Photoshop has this nice free transform tool available. 

First we're going to extend out the base boards on the left.  Use the lasso tool to select an area just before it turns the corner, then right click on the selection and choose 'Free Transform'.  Then go up to the top of the menu bar and click on the little icon to the left of the cancel button.  This will switch it to warp mode.  Now all you have to do is drag those little dots around to stretch the base board out.

Drag those dots around until it stretches out to the edge of the photo.

Drag those dots around until it stretches out to the edge of the photo.

And tada!

And tada!

Next, you'll want to fix the wall above the baseboard. Here there's a couple of methods:

  1. Do the same thing, selection a section of the wall above and free transform it over
  2. Since the wall is a nice even color, use the brush tool and sample the colors and paint it across.

Now rinse and repeat this exercise for the drain port cover on the right side of the image (I leave this as an exercise for the reader.)  And that's it! Edit the image as normal and voila, you've turned a common household corridor into another studio setup!

The Results

I've used this on a few shoots this year and I'm happy with the results.  Here are a few sets I've managed to create with some fellow muses.

Model: Angel Yang, MUAH: Alina Amison

Model: Caitlin Ann Keeshig, MUAH: Cinthia Torres

Model: Dasha, MUAH: Cinthia Torres

Model: Wendy Du, MUAH: Cinthia Torres

Two Light Setup with a Stripbox

Many months ago, I purchased a stripbox to something new to complement my Alienbee strobes. I had used these before in Langara College before while taking a photography course.  Of course, they have nice Profoto heads and Profoto softboxes, so I was curious what a $79, 14" x 59", stripbox with a $250 Alienbee could do.  

So a couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Cinthia Torres Makeup Artistry to take some bridal themed makeup and hair headshots.  I jumped at the chance to bring out the new toy to try and see if I can get some different than the traditional butterfly or clamshell beauty lighting. 

The Setup

The setup was actually done inside Cinthia's bedroom - which left sufficient room but not a ton.  The model was to be seated on her bed, with a backdrop draped behind the subject.  Here's a lighting diagram:


The equipment list is as follows:

  • Alienbee 800 in the stripbox, with a grid
  • Alienbee 1600 in the octabox
  • Canon 6D and 100mm L macro lens

Tuning the Lights

I find that when using multiple lights, it's easier to adjust them if you do one at a time, starting with the key light or main light - the one that's primarily responsible for lighting your subject.  That way, you can adjust the power and it's clear from the modelling lamp, which strobe is contributing what to the overall subject.  

The photo to the below left shows just tuning the octabox to the correct exposure.  The photo to the right is after adding the stripbox.  The model here is Aleshia Fiolleau.

Both shots are straight out of the camera, with nothing but white balance and minor exposure adjustments.  

As you can see, the stripbox not only fills in the subject's right side, but also keeps a shadow transition area between where the two lights. In my view, this gives it a bit more three dimensional feel to the photo.

Keep Using the Same Setup!

Now that you've done the hard work getting the whole setup going, now is the time to keep using it until you've run out of poses.  Because this is shoot is for showing off the makeup and hair, I had the model face towards and away from the camera.  The shots below are all straight out of camera with no editing aside from white balance and minor exposure adjustments.

Finally, here are a few edited shots.  I applied my usual blemish removal, stray hair removal and some dodging and burning to add the necessary local contrast.  Of course, it also helps to have two great muses who are good at what they do.


Getting the lighting done right on camera really helps move the final product along and get them turned around.

Now in this case, I believe the 14" x 56" stripbox is oversized for a head and shoulders portrait.  But I'll definitely be putting it to good use for full length portraits in the future!