Get more out of less.
One of the central ideas behind photography is to reduce the “clutter” especially in the background. We want to simplify our shots to help focus the viewers attention on the subject we have chosen. Often, by way of controlling the scene we use backdrops. For the modern photographer a backdrop provides a simple uncluttered background that can be used to off-set the colours of the subject, or to complement them or remain neutral.
Modern backdrops have a wide range of finishes. However, strong patterns and fussy details draw the eye off the subject. So most backdrop patterns are designed to reduce the impact on the eye. Rather than regular strong lines or shapes these back drops will tend to have random and subdued variations in the theme. Other backdrop types are solid colours. The best backdrops are minimalist.
Black backdrops are often used for darkening and absorbing the light. White backgrounds are frequently used for high-key photography. Reds, purples and blues are often used for different types of shots, but can also form effective variations for monochrome work (single tone shots or a single colour and white).
Bright green backdrops are called chroma-key (chromakey). They are often used to provide a set colour ready for post processing technique called compositing. This is where new colours or entire images are to swapped into the image. The subject is retained but the green colour is replaced with an entirely new image. This technique is the digital replacement of the old ‘back-projection’ or painted backgrounds techniques used to make it look like there was something solid in the background in the days of film. Actually there was a blank screen behind the subject. This technique is also known as “green screen”.
Backdrops can be used anywhere but are used extensively in two particular branches of photography. Portraiture and fashion photography use backdrops to simplify the scene as much as possible. This allows the person or model to be the strongest element in the scene. The eye is therefore drawn to the person which is where the photographer wants people to look. A fashion or portrait shot where the eye is not on the person is a disaster!
The other area where backdrops are used extensively is in various types of still life. Again the intention is to create a simple scene so the subject is the centre of interest. However, in still life the relatively close up nature of the work can allow the use of stronger elements in the backdrop.
In the picture above the hands are the centre of attention. The backdrop is used in this case to provide a dynamic feel (from the strong diagonal) and to direct the eye along the line of the phrase in the heart. Eyes naturally tend to follow lines like that.
While solid colours and simple patterns are well catered for in the market, specific patterns on backdrops are limited. However, in the picture at the top of this page you can see that I have arranged a variety of different wallpaper samples. Wallpaper is easy to find – it is in every DIY store and great patterns, plain or textured can be found at relatively cheap prices. If you are working at small, still life, sizes one piece of wall paper might be sufficient. However, I have sometimes worked with wallpaper on a full sized portrait backdrop. In this case I use strong tape to stick the wallpaper sheets side by side to make the backdrop wide enough. Then, I staple the wall paper to two light wooden battens, top and bottom. This helps hold the papers together with less damage. It also helps pull the paper out so it hangs flat. Wallpaper has a tendency to curl. Then the top batten is clamped to the backdrop cross bar. Hey presto! You have a cheap but patterned backdrop.
Other patterns, shapes and marks can be used to do other things in a picture. In fact if it is used properly the use of backdrops can be complementary, can be contrasting, can form effective reflections, light dampening, and many more things. Understanding backdrops is a great way to ensure that you can control what is going on behind the main subject.
Backdrops have rich history in the theatre. Today, in modern still photography they are relatively simple and uncluttered. However, if you have a specific scene in mind you can use wall paper to provide fun and varied backdrops to complement or change your scene. While proper cloth or paper backdrops can be quite expensive; wallpaper is a relatively cheap way to use fun patterns and interesting backdrops.
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