Photographer’s Lighting Handbook: Lighting Backgrounds

When it comes to lighting, the subject comes first while the foundation of the photograph, the background, is pushed into, well, the background. Lighting backgrounds to support a photograph is a lot of fun. As a matter of fact, I usually start by lighting the background. Here, we’ll explore three simple techniques to make a background more upfront.

We’ve all seen a photo like this before. Our model, Michelle, stands against a very dark background. She’s lit with a 7′ Chimera Octaplus octagon softbox, which is powered by a Dynalite studio head at 200 Watt seconds (Ws). The exposure is 1/125 at f/9, ISO 100. The shadow side of her shape and brown hair merges into a void. A reflected reading of the background shows that it’s 3 stops darker than the exposure set on the camera. It’s al­most completely black, so we have to figure out where her figure is.

Lighting Backgrounds

Lighting Backgrounds Lighting Backgrounds

Let’s figure out where her figure is using three of my favorite background lighting techniques: a gridded background light, cucoloris with gel, and an evenly lit background.

Gridded Background Light

Lighting BackgroundsA Chimera 4×6′ Strip Bank with a Lighttools grid is added to the Octaplus to outline her arm. A gridded 22″ beauty dish is aimed at the black background paper. Its light frames her, bringing her forward in the frame. Both the strip light and the beauty dish are powered by Dynalite studio heads at 100 Ws. The background light doesn’t have to be very bright. In this case, it’s 100 Ws less than the Octaplus. The reflected reading of the its light striking the background is the same at f/9 as the exposure set on the camera, instead of 3 stops darker without.

Cucoloris with Gel

The cucoloris or “cookie” method (below) breaks up the light striking a flat-lit wall. The background for this image is lit with a bare-bulb flash shining through randomly placed and sized leaf shapes cut into a 4×4′ piece of black foam core. The Dynalite head is tilted so the edge of the flash tube illuminates the cookie. A piece of Rosco Cinefoil around the head minimizes the extraneous light from striking the background or interfering with the subject. The distance of the head from the cookie determines the sharpness of the shadow edges on the background: The farther away it is, the sharper the shadows will be, and the area covered by sharp shadows will be smaller, as well.Lighting Backgrounds

For this profile, a Dynalite studio head at 100 Ws in a gridded beauty dish illuminates Katherine, while a silver reflector fills in the shadow side of her face and arm. A Rosco blue gel covers the flash tube lighting the cucoloris. This head is powered at 400 Ws. Notice how blue gels suck up a ton of light.

Lighting Backgrounds

Katherine changed outfits, and I changed the gel on the cookie flash head from blue to red. The gridded beauty dish was moved closer to the camera position to light her face, arm, and torso (bottom right). The reflector once again lowered the contrast of her top.

Lighting Backgrounds

Evenly Lit Background

Lighting Backgrounds

The evenly lit background treatment looks the simplest, yet it’s the one that demands the most precision. Fortunately, it’s not difficult at all. Evenly lighting a background requires at least two identically powered heads. Both heads must deliver the same amount of light at the center of the background from positions on either side of it. If the light from each head is the same at the center, the light will be even across the whole area.

Begin by setting up a light on either side of the background at about a 45° angle from the background’s middle. Make sure each light has the same power output. Stand at the center of the background and point your incident meter’s dome toward the camera. Now, use a flag to block one of the lights, and only half of the dome will have light on it. Take the reading. Move the flag to hide the first light and read the second. Adjust the power of the second light until its meter reading is the same as the first one. The background is now evenly lit.

Lighting BackgroundsTurn off the background lights. Take an incident reading of the subject and set that on the camera. Turn the background lights back on. Change your meter from incident to reflected. If you have a spot meter, stand at the camera. If not, stand behind the subject facing the background. Take the reflected reading. Adjust the power equally on both of the background flashes until the reflected reading is 3 f-stops brighter than the camera’s exposure. The background will be white.



Until next time, light well, and prosper!

For more about reflectance or cucoloris method, try these posts: Lighting with Cookies or Lighting Handbook on Reflectance.