7 min read

White Background Photography: Step-by-Step Guide for Portraits

7 min read

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photo of a women on a white background.

Shooting a model on seamless white paper, also known as white background photography, can produce images that have a timeless quality. Shooting against white backgrounds allows us to dress the model in any color with no fear of colors clashing or blending in an undesirable manner. Images taken against seamless white paper are also in high demand for ECOM shoots and fashion lookbooks where the clothing designer wants all of the viewer’s attention on the clothing and none of that attention on the lighting or photographic technique. Headshot photography is another area where a white background is desirable.

Because white background photography looks so simple, clients can mistakenly assume that it is easy to photograph a subject in this manner. These same clients may undervalue your mastery of lighting and attempt to underpay you for a photo shoot done against a white background.

In this article, we will explain the gear you will need to create these images and the process you will need to use to ensure that your lighting is arranged properly so that the background in the images is indeed white. Once you understand the complexity of the shoot and the size of the studio space you will need, you can convey this information to your client and demand that you be paid appropriately for your knowledge of lighting white background photos. The essential steps you will need to follow are outlined below.

How to Shoot on a White Background

Our first step in creating a portrait against a pure white background is to ask ourselves, how many elements will the viewer see in the final image? The answer is two elements -the main subject and the background. We will need to light both of these elements, and we must light these elements separately. In our final setup, there will be two foreground lights dedicated to lighting the subject and two background lights that are dedicated to illuminating the background.

The basic principle that you must understand is that the lights designated as illuminating one particular element are controlled so that they do not illuminate the second element in the photograph. To be precise, it is important that the background lights do not add too much light. If the background lights produce so much light that some of that light spills onto the subject, this will create a flare that reduces the contrast in the final image.

These are the steps necessary to create an image of a subject photographed against a white background.

Camera Settings for White Background Photography

Lock in your camera settings at ISO 100, Shutter 1/160, and aperture f5.6.

Use a shutter speed of 1/160. Most cameras will synchronize with strobe lights at a shutter speed setting of 1/160. If your camera can synchronize at a higher shutter speed, feel free to use that setting. It is not advisable to use a slow shutter speed such as 1/60. The lights will synchronize with your camera at this setting, but you may get motion blur or unwanted ambient light in the final image.

If you are an experienced studio shooter and you have an artistic reason to use a specific aperture, you should use that setting. If you are new to studio photography, set your aperture to f5.6. This aperture setting will give some depth of field so that your subject is in focus. Also, even a cheap, third-party lens is likely to produce good detail and sharpness at f5.6.

The low ISO setting is designed to have you shoot at, or close to, your camera’s native ISO setting, as this is where the sensor will have the highest dynamic range.

Illuminate the Main Subject

subject illumination.
2 large umbrellas have been placed at 45-degree angles to the subject. In this illustration, the strobes are set to their lowest power and are not providing enough illumination to light the subject.

A Westcott 7’ umbrella is a good choice to illuminate the subject as it will produce soft, even lighting. Using 2 of these umbrellas, with each placed at a 45-degree angle to the model will make it easy for you to light the subject evenly since each of the studio lights will cancel out the shadows produced by the studio lighting on the opposite side.

Our goal is to light the subject evenly. Unfortunately, to do so does require you have enough space to place the lights at least 7’ away from the subject. As you will see in a later step, you also need enough space to place your subject at least 10 feet away from the background.

Adjust the Power Setting of the Strobe Lights for the Subject

lights power setting adjustment.
The strobes have now been set to the proper power output to illuminate the subject properly.

Adjust the power of your strobes so that the subject is exposed properly. Place your subject about 10 feet away from the white seamless background and ignore the background exposure as you perform this step. Keeping your camera locked in at ISO 100, Shutter 1/160, and aperture at f5.6, begin by setting your strobe to its lowest power setting and increasing the power incrementally, taking a new photograph with each power adjustment. The first image you take will be dark. Each subsequent image will be slightly brighter until eventually the exposure looks correct. Once you determine the correct power setting for the strobe, you will not adjust these lights again.

Note, there is truly no such thing as correct exposure. Whatever looks good to your eyes or the eyes of your client is the correct exposure for you. In the old days, we used a handheld light meter to determine the correct exposure. Today, we can tether our camera to Lightroom or Capture One and use our laptop screen to carefully examine our images to ensure that the light falling on our subject is neither too bright nor too dark.

Illuminate the Background

background lights.
Two strobes have been added to illuminate the background. We are using shoot-through umbrellas here, but standard reflectors and bounce umbrellas will work as well. The strobes are set to a lower power setting here, and the background is not bright enough.

Use two lights to illuminate the background. You can use any modifier on these lights provided that they are providing even illumination across the background. If you are unsure which modifiers to choose, use 45” umbrellas.

To determine the correct power setting for these strobes, we will use the same process we used in step 4. Set these lights to their lowest power setting and take photos sequentially as you raise the power incrementally until the background appears white. If you are shooting tethered, you can use LR to measure the brightness of the background. You can also press the letter J on the keyboard to give a visual indication on the screen of when the background is pure white. If the background appears off-white or gray when you light it with your strobes, you will need to increase the power of the strobes until the background is pure white.

white background lighting.
The background strobes are in the same position as in the previous illustration. The power setting of these strobes has been increased so that the background is now white. Note that the subject is far enough away from the background strobes so that the light from these strobes does not illuminate her.

Problem Solving: Controlling Light Spillage

Your background lights must illuminate the background only, and their light does not spill onto the subject. You may need to use V-Flats to control this light spillage. You can place the V-Flats between the subject and the background lights so that the light from the background strobes does not spill onto the subject.

Here, the background strobes are creating a white background. The front strobes are illuminating the subject properly. This setup may work will work for you as it is depicted here. If you find light from the background is spilling onto the subject, use the setup in the next illustration.
lighting a portrait with white background.
In this illustration, V-Flats have been added between the subject and the background strobes to ensure that the light from these strobes does not spill onto the subject.
lighting illustration.
Alternate view of the previous illustration.

Bonus Tip: Use Different Lenses for Proper Contrast

Let’s imagine that you have lit the subject so that she is exposed properly and you have lit the background so that it is pure white, but the subject looks cloudy, hazy, or lacking in contrast. You have checked your background lights to ensure that the light from these strobes is not spilling onto your subject, and yet the subject is still lacking in contrast. No matter how much you try to tweak the power setting of the background lights and no matter how much time you spend moving your subject position, the photos continue to look flat and lacking in contrast. The problem may be your lens. Some lenses create internal flare when shooting directly into a bright white background.

My Leica 75mm Summarit sells for over $2,000 and is made by a company known for making some of the finest lenses in the world, but it is a poor choice for shooting a subject against a white background. This lens demonstrates flare in these situations that cause the subject to be lacking in color and contrast. You may have a lens in your arsenal that costs 1/10th the cost of my Summarit, and that lens may be well suited for shooting white background photography.

Alternatively, you can place black flags or use V Flats to create negative fill. To do this, place your subject inside a cocoon that you create using the V Flats. This will ensure that the lights that are illuminating the background are unable to light the subject.

Conclusion – White Background Portraits

Although shooting a subject on a pure white background requires 4 lights and decent-sized shooting space, it will be worthwhile for you to pursue learning basic principles of the technique and adding it to the shots you can offer your clients. By doing so, you will give yourself the ability to create images that have a timeless quality.

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John Ricard is a NYC based headshot photographer.
John Ricard is a NYC based headshot photographer.

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