Bad White Background Photography

I am certain many of you have seen some bad white background photography. White background photography is a quest of many a young photographer and they search all over internet and other resources trying to find a magic bullet or trick that they can use to get away from lighting it correctly. Photographers come up with some of the strangest DIY projects to light up a background to get it to look pure white, but never quite get the result they look for. Photographing on a white background, and here I am referring to a full even white spread of light, is tricky and takes some time to learn through experimentation. There is one fact about photographing on a white background, if you are attempting even lighting throughout the photo, which one has to accept and that is that you need large soft diffused light sources.

Photographing on a White Background (click for larger view)

Bad white background photography is a result of trying to force a white looking background without using correct technique. Here are some ways photographers try to get a white background look:

1. Let’s just Photoshop it to White!

This is the worst possible look that can be achieved in the bad white background photography arena. The photographer takes a photo on a white (or some ANY) background with whatever lights they have and then pull the photo into Photoshop and spend a couple of minutes tweaking the levels, creating layers and adjusting an assortment of other options to get the background to look white. The result is usually something that looks contrasty, grainy and almost alien. They convince their customers it is an art look while knowing they did it wrong. The results look artificial and leave a subject looking as if they have been cut out with a hacksaw and pasted onto a white sheet of paper.

2. Explode the background with light

Once some photographers discover that editing photos to a white background for hours on end is wasting too much of their time they may invest in “some” lighting. By “some” lighting I mean those unwilling to spend good money to get a set of good flash units or studio continuous lighting. It is expensive to get good studio lighting or camera flash units (even more expensive), but why spend thousands when you can use cheap table lamps (just add a few more or get stronger bulbs). This process usually results in uneven or over lit background spilling into the front and back-washing onto the subject. The resulting photos still need some work in Photoshop, but look a little better. These photos are usually characterized by edges of subjects and especially hair being blown away by white light.

3. Got the lights, 2 f-Stops up!

Finally some photographers will spend the good money and get a set of studio lights or camera strobe units, sync cables or wireless transmitter set and assume they are ready for white backgrounds. There is a rule out there, on internet, that a background should be over-exposed by 2 f-Stops to get it to be white. The photographer follows this rule and gets pretty much even lighting throughout his background, but there is so much backwash onto their subject that fine edges and especially again the edges of hair is gone. Fine hair strands become white and the subject looks washed out. Some photographers accept this and just pull it back into Photoshop, raise the contrast and drop the blacks in levels again to get subject detail back. The resulting images are not bad, but that edgy look on the hair makes me feel uncomfortable since the subject looks as if they had hair surgery done with a lawnmower.


The problem is that many customers are satisfied by this type of bad photography since they accept that they paid cheap and believe that that clean fashion magazine look on a white background can only be achieved by magazine photographers. The truth is that a white background, once you understand the principles of light and how to capture it using low ISO, fast shutter (1/160th) and smaller aperture (f/8), is fairly simple. Study light, learn the inverse square law of light falloff and light to subject vs. light to background distance and you will get great results with the simplest of tools.

How do I do it?

Personally I do not like pure white backgrounds as they are boring and best suited to fashion models and specific subject focus. Even when I do do white background I prefer to drop it just a small tad to get to about 5% grey so focus to my subject is not so harsh. I ignore the 2 f-Stop rule! I set all my flash units to 1/2 power and use huge diffusers and place my subjects the same distance from the background as they will be from my key light (remember the inverse square law?). This works for me in 99% of cases as can be seen from the sample photo above (which only saw Photoshop to create the compilation). The photos are as they come from the camera. The white hairs are compliments of age, not lighting… *sigh*

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