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!