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Photography Question 
Robin E. Nichols

White Background

I have noticed portraits that have a solid white background and the person looks like they are popping off the page. Can you only do this if the background starts out white? Or is there a Photoshop trick? Has anyone done this before? Thanks.

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12/12/2008 9:33:40 AM

W.    Photos like that require oooodles of light, Robin. Of course, the subject needs to be lit well, but the white background needs to be lit a LOT more. The background must be at least 2 stops more than the subject to get it really white (and not grey).
Have fun!

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12/12/2008 1:43:01 PM

Bruce A. Dart   Robin,
High Key portraits (white background) is another subject, often touted as perfectly natural by the same print judges who scream about "contrived" looks to photographs. Some of the same judges adamantly claim that only subject clad in white -- the extremists also add only blonde subjects, not dark haired ones -- are the ONLY fitting subject for this technique. Some also assert that the background should be perfectly white and have no evidence of shadows whatsoever. In some print competitions where some judges perpetuate often erroneous misconceptions, that might be true. In real life, however, you can make a lot of backgrounds look very nice with lots of subjects. My personal preference is a white background that doesn't always go pure white but more mid tones. Colored gels on the background light also give a nice complimentary pastel look. Many photographers trying to achieve this look felt that if two stops (at least) are good -- more is better. The late legendary Dean Collins used a white background and made it white, black, or any other color he chose, simply by controlling the light hitting it. He was not only a master at doing it, he was a master at teaching it as well. About two f/stops is the key. Any color with two more stops of light than the subject will essentially be rendered white with detail. Two less stops, black with detail. Another half to one stop and no detail (in the background). Even lighting on the background is what makes it work, since the falloff of light varies in an inverse square proportion and in a short distance or amount of power it makes a huge difference. That's the lesson in a nutshell. Making it work may take lots of experimenting and practice. THERE IS ANOTHER OFTEN OVERLOOKED AND EXTREMELY IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION. Light bounces off all objects in varying degrees but particularly so from a white background. With subject too close to the background (or in a small studio), if the light is much more than two stops, will start to pick up what amounts to lens flare from the background -- noticeable on the subject. While much of portrait lighting is a "season to taste" type of thing (once the basics are understood), the general rule of thumb for backgrounds is one stop less than the light on the subject gives a pleasing but not distracting tone to the background. Set the same as the main light, it gives essentially the same tone as you see looking at it. By the time you reach two stops difference, there is still detail but not blown out. (Lighter or darker.) More than that usually only creates problems. Setting the power of your lights two stops brighter in a small space with white walls will likely also get you more light bouncing off the other walls and the ACTUAL light may well be a half to one stop more. Try it but watch for these things.

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12/16/2008 4:27:12 AM

Greg McCroskery
BetterPhoto Member Since: 2/27/2003
Bruce's answer includes a lot of info, but it's all right on the money. High key lighting is not all that difficult, 'good' high key lighting is not easy and usually requires some experimentation in your given shooting environment. As Bruce correctly pointed out, one often made mistake is placing the subject too close to the background creating a 'halo' effect on the subject.
God Bless,

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12/16/2008 5:22:55 AM

Bunny Snow
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/16/2004
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  I use white foam core or white Foamboard sheets, which are available from some arts and crafts stores to create starkly white backgrounds for some subjects. The price of the foam core depends upon the size and thickness needed.

My subjects are at least 6 feet from the background so that the shadow falls behind the subject and not onto the background.

Next, a least two to three lights are needed: One as a background light, one as a main light, and one as a fill, to fill in the shadows.

If the foam core sheets can be arranged into a three sided box, less lights will be needed because the light will bounce off the sides and light the subject.

This is not done with the in camera flash, because it's simply not powerful enough.

Also, while it can be photoshopped, everything is easier and faster if photographed correctly during the setup.

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12/16/2008 9:04:46 AM

Bruce A. Dart   Hi all,
A previously unmentioned tip for high key is another Dean Collins gem of wisdom, his "cove corner." Dean created a rounded white corner that, because of the way the light hit the rounded corner, would light up a white background with one simple light behind the subject. This would be similar to the three sided box that Bunny mentioned.

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12/16/2008 5:27:20 PM

Robin E. Nichols   Thanks for all your suggestions.

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12/16/2008 7:29:13 PM

Bunny Snow
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/16/2004
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  If you are using studio lighting equipment (mine are White Lightnings), you can see the light on the subject to create the wanted or unwanted shadows. This preview of what is ahead is in the form of incadescent lights on each monolight.

To meter each monolight, a sync cord can placed attached to the monolight and the flash meter. Metering each individual light alone gives a better idea of what the three lights will do together.

One light, which is important, but I forgot to add, is the hair light which is placed above the hair (but out of the picture) on a boom. This highlights the hair, creating that lovely glow, and separates the hair from the background, except if the person's hair happens to be white (like mine). Then, another set of problems occur.

I've found the same principle can be used with my portable flash units and the box, or the circle Bruce had mentioned. It would be kind of like a lighting tent, except the white foam core is highly reflective, doesn't show if set up well, and gives the feeling of a totally white background.

Now all that is needed is the subject dressed in white, so that the only contrast be her skin tonality.

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12/17/2008 6:58:11 AM

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