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How to Get a Pure White Background in Studio Shots


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


No Comments

  1. Kristin on August 24, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Hi thereI have been looking for white back ground and I am not sure if I should get paper or fabric? I want to use for having babies on floor also, and think that maybe paper would be best? Please advice and thank you for a wonderful learning site

    • Olga Bogatyrenko on August 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Kristin, I’d go with paper, I’ve tried both and found fabric impractical for getting all around clean shots. Besides getting dirty and wrinkling easy, fabric tends to gather and wrinkle around your subject (if she’s sitting) or her feet (if she’s standing), and it becomes quite time consuming either smoothing it out in photoshop or making sure it’s smooth during the shoot. Paper’s just so much easier!

  2. Will Prentice on August 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Couple of tricks I use, as I shoot over 60% of my portraits and work in high-key. A Lastolite HiLiter is an incredible background – it’s like a giant softbox and lights very evenly. I also use the vinyl floor with it for full-length shots.In Photoshop, I add a Levels layer and then a Threshold layer. Drag the Threshold slider to the right – the background should stay white while anything that isn’t pure white shows as black. Then click on your Levels layer, grab the white point tool and click a part of the background that you know should be white but is showing as black on the Threshold layer. Sometimes, it can take a few clicks to get the background where you want it.

  3. Kelly Orr on August 24, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    I shoot on a white seamless. I sometimes have issues getting the coloring perfect on the floor around the subject’s feet without making the subject look like they are floating in air. I do a lot of collages and sometimes find it hard to exact color match (again, around the feet) when framing multiple images together. The background is fine, it is just the ground (on a full-body shot) I am having issue with. Maybe I am getting too much shadow on the floor in front of my subject. The attached photo is SOC. Any advise?

    • Olga Bogatyrenko on August 25, 2012 at 10:05 pm

      Kelly, with a three-light setup it is quite difficult to knock out the foreground because you run the risk of overexposing your subject. This is the area I find myself “cleaning up” the most in post-processing. As I mentioned in the article above, there are a couple of ways to do it – dodging (possibly with a levels layer mask), painting over with a soft white brush, MCP’s “studio white background” is great too.I would use the dodge tool to clean up your picture (see attached). Also, in your picture the background on the left was not completely knocked out either. Try to use the “levels” trick I describe in the article to check for areas that are not pure white.

  4. Kristin T on August 27, 2012 at 9:10 am

    I love to use Studio White Bright Spell from MCP’s Bag of Tricks Action set. It’s easy to use and helps me “clean up” any issues I have with lighting. 🙂

    • Kristin T on August 27, 2012 at 9:11 am

      I got so excited about the Action that I forgot to say THANKS for a great post! 🙂 Thanks!

  5. PhotoSpherix on August 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

    I have to vote for a paper background, that way when it gets dirty, you get new. You would be amazed how little of a mark can destroy your shot.

  6. Kerry on August 29, 2012 at 9:31 am

    It call high key guys and vynal works the best and last the longest FYI

  7. Angela on December 19, 2012 at 5:36 am

    I have a massive problem with the white paper background getting dirty during the shoot – denim jeans are the worst culprit – but then black little bits need to get cloned out. My problem is, I edit in Lightroom and my clients are loving the slight soft vignetting i put in during the Lightroom editing. So, what would be the suggested workflow – Lightroom doesnt have great cloning.My current workflow is – import into Lightroom, pick and reject, crop ‘picks’ only, apply presets (for me I use a warm toned B&W preset – including the vignetting) then edit in Photoshop for smudges and spots on the floor. My major problem is that the cloning of the backdrop becomes very uneven when trying to clean it up by cloning. Help!

  8. garfield on January 10, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    I have achieved very good results by using the quick selection tool in Photoshop CS6. This tool quickly and very effectively isolates your background from your subject. Hair isnt a problem because I use the “refine edges” option to get this right. Then I go into Curves and raise the white,whilst my subject isnt affected by this command. This way,you can control some small natural shadows under your subject to keep a natural look,rather than have your subject looking as if he or she is floating in air.

  9. Product Photographer Brighton on May 15, 2013 at 9:44 am

    To achieve a desirable white background takes enormous efforts and skills. Lighting is really crucial because it affects everything. Meanwhile, tips mentioned here are indeed plus factors.

  10. Kevin on May 22, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    I have been using a nice white vinyl background for a few years now and I prefer the vinyl as the paper can give off a dull appearance. offer vinyl on a roll and if it gets dirty, it can be wiped clean. Great option overall. I applied this same background for this photo I have included

  11. Michael DeLeon on May 18, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    Great tutorial. Remember to light the background just enough to get a pure white but be careful not to over light it. This can create to much light wrapping from behind and also reduce clarity.

  12. pany on February 11, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you so much for the tips. I used to select every white area by pen and then fill it white. it was so frustrating.But I didn’t know about holding the Option button while pushing highlight slider. it works cooool.thank you !!!

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