In photography, many elements combine to create the final image. And, arguably, the most critical, yet overlooked aspect, is the background. In the real world, we rely on nature or human-made scenes. But, once we step inside into the studio, things change.
Many photographers negate their importance, and they’re mostly considering an afterthought. However, the backdrop sets both the stage and environment for a photo. And sure, they’re simple. But they’re the easiest way to add visual flair to your photographs. And the right background quickly transforms the mode by adding depth and texture. Thus, converting a rather plain, stale, and uninteresting shot into something exciting and dynamic.
Not to mention, background distractions can quickly destroy a composition, causing unnecessary work in post-processing. Or, they can distract viewers away from your subject and cause a loss of interest. Frankly, regardless of the medium, the background either makes or breaks images. And getting the right one is an essential step towards higher quality photos.
While selecting a backdrop seems like a simple enough task, today’s retailers offer plenty of designs, styles, fabrics, and colors. So, it can get overwhelming to decide which types best suits your work. In this post, we’ve compiled a list of the ten best photography backdrops and their separating characteristics. And each will give you insight on which, specifically, is best for your particular needs.
Seamless Paper Backdrops
Seamless paper backgrounds are arguably the most affordable, given their versatility. And they’re a staple and preferred choice amongst photographers. They come in virtually every imaginable color, with sizes ranging from 26″ to 107″. You can also modify the actual color with lighting or easily cut out the subject for a full background replacement.
The benefit here is that they’re relatively inexpensive given their size and lifespan. And you can easily swap between various colors. Plus, these are inherently flat, without creases, which means they require minimal maintenance. However, seamless paper is rather fragile and not as durable as other materials. So beware of wet and dirty shoes, as they’ll leave marks and damages. Plus, the wrong movement can easily cause a rip, damaging that section. Additionally, they also lack texture, so they’re a bit on the flat side.
Unlike standard seamless paper, printed backgrounds use high definition printers to produce unique and realistic textures, creating a more intricate design. These designs range anywhere from wood, grain, or brick textures, to glows and decorations. And you can find sizes ranging from 53″ to 96″.
The benefit here is printed backdrops add more visual flair. And they can bring much-needed life to a photograph. By adding anything from grunge to elegance or fun. They’re also relatively inexpensive. But, they’re more durable than standard seamless papers, due to their heavy ink coating. But, ultimately, they’re still paper; you’ll have to take the same general precautions as standard seamless paper.
Collapsible backgrounds are the preferred choice amongst traveling photographers. And their quick and easy assembly and teardown delivers superior portability over traditional backdrops. They also come in the same general colors, prints, or painted options. And for this reason, they’re the ideal option for traveling photographers or those shooting in tight spaces that can’t accommodate a full setup. These usually come in a standard 5×7′ size.
The benefit here is that collapsible backdrops fold up like regular reflectors, which makes them incredibly portable. Thus, they’re quite inexpensive. They also usually have two contrasting colors on each side, adding versatility. Or you can create artistic scenes anywhere when using a textured background. You can even improvise and stand them upright without the stand. And, without question, collapsible backdrops are the fastest to set up. The only real downside here is that they’re relatively small, limiting their use for multi-person shoots or full-length portraits.
Vinyl backgrounds use a matte material, which eliminates any reflections and glare that typically plagues paper. And sizes range from 60″ to 120″.
Unlike paper, vinyl is substantially easier to clean. Dab the scuff with a damp sponge, and you’re done. There’s no need to cut and rip off paper here, saving time. Plus, this fabric usually doesn’t wrinkle and can last a lifetime with proper storage. However, some styles do. And if they do crease or wrinkle, they’re quite time-consuming to remove. So, it’s best to get a midrange option that is not on the cheaper side. Nevertheless, they’re quite a wise investment given their advantages.
Printed Vinyl Backdrops
Printed vinyl backgrounds feature images printed on pliable vinyl with a matte coating, eliminating any reflections or glare. And they also come in similar sizes ranging from 60″ to 120″.
The benefit here is that printed vinyl backgrounds are similar to standard printed backgrounds, with their main difference being texture. With that, you get the same bonuses as standard vinyl paper, now with added appeal and flair. And they come in more colors, styles, and aesthetics, not just the classic black, white, or grey standard options.
Canvas backgrounds are custom hand-painted designs on large sheets of canvas. And they use multiple layers of coating, creating a perception of texture, depth, and tonality. They’re typically specially designed to deliver a high-end and sophisticated fine art feel. But, one that offers visual flair that’ll help your work stand apart. They come in many designs and colors with sizes ranging from 60″ to 96″.
The benefit of canvas backgrounds is that canvas, by its nature, is generally quite thick and robust. And this material is more resistant and longer-lasting than vinyl alone. And since they’re also hand-painted, they offer a unique sense of depth that other materials cannot replicate. However, they’re quite costly to care for and handle. And dirty shoes can easily damage them, which doesn’t help as they’re quite challenging to clean. They also tend to wrinkle when transported. And the effort to paint and create these backgrounds tends to make them quite expensive.
Muslin backgrounds are another popular choice amongst studio photographers. They use non-reflective cotton, which creates a distinct and, often, fine art look. You can find them in various solid colors, splotches, or unique hand-painted designs, all with a standard 120″ size.
The benefit of muslin backgrounds is that they’re inexpensive and easy to clean and maintain, like vinyl. Simply run them through the washing machine and the ready for reuse. They’re also exceptionally lightweight, for easy transport. Plus, with a long enough size, you can also use them similar to paper for full-length portraits, providing the same benefit without the weight. However, they tend to wrinkle easily. And if lit incorrectly, the folds become even more apparent and quite distracting in the photo. They’re also easily disturbed when subjects walk or move across them, significantly increasing someone’s chances of slipping.
Floor drop backgrounds are specialty prints on a thick polyester backing. These backgrounds are ultra-detailed and very life-like. And they come in many designs, some replicating a specific location, such as the home plate on a baseball field or a city street. You can find them in sizes from 48″ to 84″.
The benefit of floor drops is that they create the look and feel of a specific location conveniently in the studio. They also take away the borning elements of any standardized flooring. And for this reason, they’re a popular choice for wedding and commercial photographers. They also double as backdrops when mounted to stands, adding versatility. And while you can use another backdrop style and lay it on the floor, these are far more resistant. However, they can develop rolls or ridges if not given the proper rest time.
Wrinkle-Resistant Polyester Backdrops
Wrinkle-resistant backgrounds use a cotton-polyester blend with sewn-in pockets for easy mounting. They come in a variety of solid colors and designs with a standard 60″ size.
The benefit of wrinkle-resistant backgrounds is that they don’t wrinkle, of course, but their matte coating also makes them reflection-free. They’re even machine washable, lightweight, and easily transported like muslin. But, they’re substantially more affordable than a comparable muslin background. However, they can develop creases over time, which will require some steam ironing.
Chroma Key Backdrop
Chroma key backgrounds usually come in either green or blue. And, you can find them in a variety of different fabrics. These are a staple for photographers who do a lot of post-processing, particularly when traveling. You can find them in sizes ranging from 60″ to 120”.
The benefit of Chroma key backgrounds is that these colors allow for easy background removal. And you can quickly cut out your subject and paste them in other environments in post-processing. And they’re ideal if you want to shoot a specific location without physically going there.
Where can I get photography backdrops?
You can get backdrops at your local camera store or online. Below is a list of the most reputable online retailers in this space:
- Savage Universal
- Backdrop Outlet
- Kate Backdrop
- F.J. Westcott
How do I choose a photography backdrop?
Photography backdrops come in many varieties ranging in material, design, size, and color. And within color alone, you’ll find variations from hand-painted designs, air-brushed, printed, or a mixture.
When it comes to choosing a backdrop, we should first start with intent. What do you plan on shooting? For example, if you shoot headshots on the road, then a small portable system is best. But, if you shoot full-body portraits or groups, then a permanent setup is better. Each type of background has unique qualities and an ideal medium that they work best.
So, the right backdrop specifically will come down to the style you prefer, in the size and material that works for how you shoot.
Things to consider when choosing a backdrop
Outside of color alone, there are several other considerations to bear in mind when choosing a backdrop.
Backdrops come in wildly different sizes. For this, consider how large your studio is and the size of the subject. In most cases, you likely want your subject to be 3″ away from the backdrop, which prevents unwanted shadows and makes it easier to light separately. So, factor in this distance as well.
A 2′ wide backdrop is best for products, macro, and still life images. It’s possible to capture close up headshots and beauty, but you may find them a bit limiting.
A 5′ wide backdrop is perfect for head and 3/4 length shots. And they require the least amount of setup space. Thus, they’re ideal for a small home studio space or event photography.
A 7″ wide backdrop is perfect for 3/4 length and full-body portraits of a single model.
A 9″ wide backdrop is typically found in most commercial studios, and they accommodate full-body portraits of multiple subjects.
Backgrounds vary in price quite dramatically. You can find affordable options ranging from $15—to premium one of a kind creation close to $2,000. When looking at options, consider their lifespan, your budget, and assess whether it’ll offer long-term value as an investment. Often, it’s that one of a kind backdrop that pays dividends. And those are the ones that separate you from every other photography in your market—quite a worthy investment.
Backdrops also come in various textures, ranging from wood, concrete, granite, and many more. Depending on your subject medium, these can add much-needed character to your images. And when you don’t have access to the real thing, a natural surface such as wood or marble is an excellent replica.
Is it distracting?
When using bold colors or textured backgrounds, ask yourself: is the backdrop taking focus away from the subject? This is even more important when you shoot multiple subjects or someone wears contrasting colors and textures. At this point, the backdrop can easily overcomplicate the image.
Another significant consideration is the color of the background.
How to choose the right backdrop color
The background color does more than complementing your image. It also has a tremendous effect on lighting, creative direction, the mood, story, and how you frame subjects. While there are countless colors and designs, we’ve outlined some of the most common colors below.
- White – White is simple, minimalistic, and places more emphasis on the colors of your subject.
- Grey – Grey is also minimalistic and straightforward but slightly more neutral than white. And this color doesn’t overpower subjects, but compliments well.
- Black – Black is clean, simple, but bold. Black places all of the emphasis on your subject, and none on the background.
- Bold Colors – Bold colors make your images pop and stand out by bringing an element of playfulness while remaining professional. However, it’s essential to understand color theory and select the color wisely for a cohesive image. Otherwise, the colors will clash and become distracting.
- Texture – Texture helps create narratives and tell a story. However, some surfaces can quickly become too busy, creating distractions that clash in an image.
The last consideration is how you mount the backdrop before use.
How do I set up and hang backdrops? Backdrop mounting options
You can find many options for mounting backdrops, some DIY, others professional systems. But, below are the most popular options. The best option will come down to the type of backdrop you use and its size. And how frequently you want to change backdrops, if applicable to your workflow.
On the Floor
Simply laying out the background on the floor is a reliable option for products, pets, or infants. You can either use a dedicated Floor Drop or, really, any other style. Both work equally well.
Removable wall hooks are the simplest and most affordable solution for hanging backgrounds. And they work well for smaller backdrops.
Portable Backdrop Stands
Backdrop stands are an excellent option if you plan on occasionally traveling or you like to breakdown your studio. Compared to fixed mounts, they provide added flexibility in configuration and are the most common for this reason. These consist of a 3-section support bar and two light stands, which supports backdrops up to 10 feet wide. And you mount backgrounds directly using a pole pocket or secured via A-clamps. And while this system is entirely secure and durable, it does require a bit of room. So it’s not always ideal for small home studios.
A fixed backdrop mount is ideal if you have a permanent studio setup, and you rarely change backgrounds. You mount these to the ceiling or wall, giving you convenient access whenever needed.