Outfitting your studio or business with photography backdrops doesn’t have to be complicated or costly!
Maybe the weather is limiting your outdoor sessions. Maybe you just want to start offering studio-based portrait sessions. But choosing photography backdrops, stands and props is confusing, never mind the lighting and the six hundred other things you might need. Where does a new photographer even begin? Keep reading and I’ll give you the background you need to meet your photography backdrop needs!
Photography Backdrop Basics
Photography backdrops and stands can be purchased or made at home using supplies from your local hardware store or craft store. But before you get online to find plans or order supplies, here are some basic things to think about as you plan your studio-setup.
How big is your studio? If you’re building a portable studio, how big is your car? Begin by knowing the maximum size of backdrops your studio can host comfortably or what you can realistically fit in your car. If space is not a limiting factor, think about the number and ages of clients you’ll be photographing. A 48″ wide backdrop can work for tight headshots or newborn sessions, but won’t accommodate a family of five. It’s better to plan ahead so you’ll have room to grow as your skills and client base grows!
Not all photography backgrounds and stands are made the same. You might find some inexpensive stands and backdrops online, but if they are constrcuted with cheap materials, they likely won’t hold up to the test of time. For stands, look for ones made of sturdy pvc or metal with some heft to it. A super lightweight stand is easy to carry but can’t support heavier backdrops and is easily tipped over. Stands with lightweight plastic locking mechanisms may loosen up or break entirely, rendering the unit unsafe or unusable.
The base of your photography stand will need a wide footprint to improve stability. Look for stands that have feet that spread out nice and wide to decrease tipping or leaning.
Will these backdrops and stands be a permanent part of your studio or will you need to take your setup on location? How difficult is the equipment to set up, break down, transport and keep in good working order?
Types of photography backdrop stands
Should you choose your stands first and find backdrops to fit or choose photography backdrops first and find stands to hold them? There’s a bit of the chicken and egg dilemma going on here. I suggest choosing stands that fit your size and portability needs first, then adding backdrops to your collection along the way. But if there are certain types of backgrounds you absolutely MUST have, choose that first then find a stand system to support it!
There are some great DIY plans online if you’d like to construct your own photography backdrop stand. You can build one that fits your space and budget. Most of the plans call for very little in terms of actual construction skills, which is a bonus if your mechanically uninclined like myself. A quick Google or Pinterest search can yield plans for everything from a backdrop stand suitable for newborn sessions to family sessions. Making your own can be less expensive than purchasing stands or a system and you can build it to your exact specifications. The downside is these stands aren’t always as adjustable, portable or easy to set up by yourself as professional stands.
Standard backdrop stands
If you aren’t the DIY type, you can purchase a photography backdrop stand. These stands, sometimes called straight stands, are usually metal with either metal or plastic adjustable brackets. Two of these stands, along with a crossbar held up between them, will hold most types of backdrops. These types of stands also double as light stands for flashes and strobes giving them dual purpose. Straight stands ands can collapse down to just a few feet tall. Definitely a plus if you travel with your gear! Another feature I really like is air-cushioning. Air-cushioning features keep the stands from collapsing into themselves too quickly, which can be hard on your gear and your fingers if they get pinched in the pieces!
It can be tempting to skimp on background stands to save a few dollars. There are several kits available online for under $40. But the addage of you get what you pay for is often great advice. These budget stands are constructed of lightweight material that won’t hold heavier backdrops or stand up to hard use. The crossbar can sag, pulling the stands in toward center making it unstable. The brackets break down after just a few uses. You might spend more upfront, but a well-built photography stand is something you won’t ever need to replace. Before purchasing any kit, check to see how much weight the crossbar is rated for and ensure it will hold the weight of your intended backdrops.
C-stands, short for Century stands after the company that invented them, are like straigth stands in that they have three legs and collapse down into themselves. These are most often used as light stands. But since they can be multi-purpose, I’m including them here as options for background stands. The legs of a C-stand can be configured in different ways with adds versatility and stability. Two C-stands with extension arms makes an awesome heavy-duty backdrop stand! They are capable of supporting heavy rolls of background paper or heavy muslin drops. C-stands are bigger and heavier than straight stands, but they don’t store down quite as small or compact as a straight stand. This can make them more cumbersome to transport and store.
Pipe and Drape stands
Another option is a photography backdrop I call pipe and drape stands. You’ll see these used at trade shows to hold drapes or curtains creating vendor booths or to hang a step-and-repeat banner. Instead of three feet that fold up or spread out, these stands usually have a single rectangular or square base. They do a good job of supporting backdrops but are less adjustable, harder to set up and tear down by yourself and more awkward to transport.
Backdrop roller system
If portability isn’t a concern, a roller system is another option. The system uses brackets, gears and chains to make storing, lowering and raising backdrops quick and easy. The more expensive systems are even motorized! These systems mount to the wall or ceiling. This means less easted space and no support stands for clients to run into and knock over. They are also great if your studio is dual purpose as you can simply roll up your backdrops and get them out of sight. You will need some tools and mounting hardware to install a roller system. This system works great with paper or other cored backgrounds.
Types Photography Backdrops
So those are some ideas on supporting a backdrop. But what about the photography backdrops themselves? What is seamless paper? Muslin? How do they work?
Seamless paper is about as straightforward and uncomplicated as it comes. These are literally big rolls of paper you unroll and hang. The “seamless” part is so named because there is no visible seam between the wall and floor. Seamless paper comes in different widths, lengths and colors. If taken care of properly, it can be reused multiple times. If a part gets dirty or damaged, simply tear off the end and unroll a new length. There is the added benefit of no wrinkles making post-production editing much quicker.
Cloth backdrops are usually cotton fabric material like muslin that you drape over the crossbar of a photography backdrop stand. Other fabrics can also be used, including velvet, velour or microfiber. The fabric is a single piece making it seamless. Cloth backgrounds come in solids and subtle textures often called crushed. These backdrops also come in different lengths and widths. Most can be washed so they have a longer lifespan than paper. But they require more maintenance to stay wrinkle and pet hair free (which I learned the hard way!) There aren’t as many color choices, either, compared to seamless paper.
Canvas backdrops are also cloth, but are heavier and sturdier than their muslin counterparts. The first photography backdrops were made of canvas and they are still popular today. Canvas drops are hand-painted. If you’re artistic and don’t mind a bit of a mess, you can paint your own canvas backdrops. You can choose neutral colors or paint a scene like a haunted house or garden.
Vinyl or paper scenes and patterns
If variety is your thing, you will love the endless option of custom backdrops. These drops, usually made of paper, lightweight vinyl or even canvas, offer endless options for shapes and scenes. You can choose a backdrop to replicate wood, a princess castle, a woodland path or a bookstore. Some are even customized by holiday or occasion. These
Pop-up or collapsible backdrops are large cloth backdrops that pop-up and fold down like car windshield protectors. It might take some practice to fold it up, but they make great portable solutions for headshots or other simple background needs. They are often reversible, offering even more versatility!
Pro Tip: Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on how to store your physical backdrops to decrease wrinkles, wear and tear!
Forget the physical, go digital! Digital backdrops, like the one shown above, are becoming more popular and there are more options than ever before! Digital backdrops can be incorporated into fantasy shoots, newborn shoots or even athletic portraits. You are only limited by your imagination.
Pros of digital backdrops
- Often cheaper than a physical backdrop
- Can replace costly props,
- No need for physical storage
- Easy to transport
- Allows for maximum creativity
- Stand apart from the competition
Digital backdrop drawbacks
- Time- consuming to edit
- Requires high-level photo editing skills to make composites look realistic
- Some clients might not like the whimsical or unrealistic feel
- Harder to provide a variety of poses using digital backdrops
- No re-sell option once you’re done using it
- Often requires the use of a green or other contrasting backdrop for best extraction methods
Where can you find photography backdrops?
Local and online photography stores are a great place to start in your hunt for photography backdrops. Amazon, Adorama, B&H Photo as well as your local camera store probably carry a few different styles and sizes of backgrounds and a large selection of seamless paper. Their personnel can also help answer questions or direct you to a system and type of background that will work for you.
There are also lots of smaller, online background retailers. Most of these offer paper or fabric patterned and scenic backdrops. In general, the more durable and larger the backdrop, the more expensive. Here’s a list of some of my favorite retailers!
- Bellevue Avenue
- Etsy sellers
- HSD Photography
- Stock photography sites like AdobeStock or ShutterStock
Cheap Photography Backdrops
Every photographer is looking for a way to save money and increase their bottom line. Studio equpminet such as lights, stands and photography backdrops can quickly add up into a pretty large expense. So how do you score cheap photography backdrops? First, a disclaimer. Cheap backdrops often have the same issues as cheap background stands – they don’t stand up to wear and tear. Low-quality backdrops can be impossible to keep wrinkle-free. They can also pose glare issues and will unravel or tear easily. Sometimes what you save in price you waste in your time and effort getting it ready for a session! But there are a few ways to
Tip #1 – Watch Amazon’s Lightning Deals
Occasionally you can find some great deals on backdrops on Amazon. I’ve bought a few through lightning deals for less than $10. These backdrops aren’t the highest quality, but when I was just starting in studio work they fit my needs and my budget.
Tip #2 – Ask backdrop outlets about seconds
Some photography backdrop outlets offer great discounts on “seconds.” These are backdrops might have a small flaw in their construction or printing that the company discounts for but is easily overcome by you, the photographer. Sometimes the savings can be up to 50% off!
Tip #3 – Sign up for backdrop sites newsletter and blog to score coupon codes and find sales
Many of the backdrop sellers I list above hold sales throughout the year. I try to plan ahead so that when they do have a sale, I take advantage of the price reduction. LemonDrop Shop, for example, holds a buy 2 get 1 free sale about twice a year. Others offer coupons for free shipping, 25% off or $10 off. Don’t pay full price unless you absolutely have to!
Tip #4 – Join used photography equipment Facebook groups
Used equipment sites can be a great source for photography backgrounds at discounted prices. If there aren’t any offerings posted, start a new post saying what you are looking for. You might be surprised at the choices you’ll have for people looking to sell some of their stock off!
Tip #5 – Borrow, rent or trade with other photographers
Most photographers who have been in business for a while have a collection of backdrops. Check with your photog friends to see what they might have in their stockpile and ask about borrowing, renting or trading! You could score a backdrp for a session for free or for pennies on the dollar!
Tip #6 – Use bulletin board paper or butcher paper
For a small-scale seamless option, check out fadeless bulletin board paper. It’s not quite as heavy duty as photographic seamless paper. But it is readily available at craft stores and is less expensive. It works great for cake smashes, small kiddo or pet sessions as well as product photography.
Tip #7 – Be creative
There’s nothing saying your photography backdrop has to come from a photography store. With some ingenuity, you can make lots of different materials work as a backdrop. Look for fun and unique cloth, drapes or even towels, table cloths and bedsheets in the discount bins at fabric stores, garage sales or thrift stores. Matte-style wrapping paper or scrapbook paper works great for small-scale backgrounds. Plastic tablecloths you buy at the dollar store can be bunched together in different color combinations. Heck, newspaper taped to the wall can be an interesting backdrop! For more great ideas, look on Pinterest. Take advantage of other’s craftiness and see what they’ve used!
You can also make your own digital backgrounds by keeping your eye out for textures and scenes to use later. Start a folder on your hard drive with potential candidates so you have a digital background when you need it!
Tip #8 – Rent a complete studio
Some photographers will rent out their entire studio to other photographers, including access to stands, backdrops and lighting. Renting the whole enchilada for a day gives you access to just about everything you need for sessions, usually for less than what a single backdrop would cost you.
Studio photography can be a lot of fun and provide additional income streams to your photography business. Use these tips to start planning your permanent or popup studio and purchase of photography backgrounds and stands.