How to Get a Pure White Background in Studio Shots
Photos against a pure white background are extremely versatile. A white (also called “blown out” or ” knockout”) background has for a long time been popular for commercial photography, including model, fashion and product shoots. It is also a great option for portrait sessions of newborns, maternity, family and children. Images on pure white background look great in an office, a living room or a nursery as wall art or desk prints. They have a clean and sophisticated look.
Unfortunately, in many cases photography on white background is not done properly. A true “blown out ” white background looks bright and evenly lit; its color value is 255/255/255 (in other words, it contains no color information as it is pure white), which you can check by using a color picker tool in Photoshop. Below I will share a couple of tips on how to achieve blown-out white background look and to avoid some common problems, such as a gray background, uneven or blotchy gray areas, a gray vignette around your image and color cast.
How to Photograph a Blown Out White Backdrop
The most important tip for achieving a pure white background for your studio photos is to light your subject and your background separately. I recommend having at least three lights for this setup, two for the background and at least one as the main light for your subject. Additional lights and/or reflectors may be useful for the main subject, depending on your artistic vision.
First, position your “background lights” to point at the background and use manual settings to achieve the “blown out highlights” effect. Light output of my background lights is usually at least a couple of stops stronger than the light output of my main light. Light bounced off the blown-out background will also create a back-lighting effect on your subject, the degree of back-lighting depends on the angle at which background light are pointed at the background. Second, use one main light (I use a softbox, but an on-camera flash bounced off something and/or with a diffuser works as well) and possibly additional lights or reflectors to light your main subject. Use your main light for your subject only (not to achieve the blown out white background), its output and position relatively to your subject will depend on the size of your studio, the nature of your session, and your lighting goals, among other factors.
I recommend using a white paper backdrop, a cloth backdrop works equally well (but I have found that I do not like the way its fabric folds and wrinkles on the floor, especially around subject’s feet). My studio is painted white so I do not use backdrops for the “blown out” look. Instead, I point background lights at the wall behind my subject and use white paper on the floor.
Post-Processing for a Cleaner, Whiter Backdrop in Photoshop
The first thing I do when I open an image in Photoshop is check whether the background and parts of the foreground are blown out. A color picker tool will do the job; I prefer a trick using the “levels” tool in Photoshop, which helps identify blown-out areas in the entire image. Bring up the “levels” window and click on the right slider while holding down the “Alt” key (on a PC) or “Option” key (on a Mac). Parts of the image will turn black, parts of the image will be white. The white areas are the “blown out”, pure white areas. Advanced Photoshop users can create a “levels” mask with a 50-80% opacity to check which parts of the image are “blown out” and which are not. In the screenshot below the white areas are “blown out”, the black parts are not.
Then I work to clean up the parts of the image that are not pure white, usually the foreground. A dodge tool works great if you want to edit manually. I personally also like using the “Studio White Background” action from MCP’s “Newborn Necessities.”
Voi-la, your white background is done! Make any additional touch-ups, flatten image if necessary, and save. Thank you for reading this post and do not hesitate to follow up with any questions!
Olga Bogatyrenko (Chasing Moments Photography) is a newborn photographer in Northern Virginia who also does maternity, baby and family sessions. Olga loves working with newborns and young children and their parents to capture natural, bright, true-to-life pictures. She comes from a microstock background and is versatile in studio and on-location photo sessions. Leave a comment on this post if you have questions. Also check out her facebook page.