The best photography backdrop is the one most suited to the job, no matter what the actual backdrop material is. But as there are so many types of photography backdrops it can be hard to know which one to choose. So today we’re looking at all types of backdrops and I’ll tell you how I’ve used them so that you can decide which is the best photography backdrop material for your photoshoot.
Whilst I’m a portrait photographer, like all professional photographers with the overheads of a photography studio to cover, I’ve also done other types of photography over the years. I’ve used the same backdrops for portrait photography as for product photography, so the first point to note is that you don’t need a specific type of backdrop for a particular type of photography.
Your choice of backdrop depends mainly on 3 things:
- Size of the subject (and therefore backdrop size)
- Style of the shoot
- If it needs to be portable, or used in one place only
Once you know these things you can start considering the various backdrop options. But because you’re here to know about photography backdrop materials, we’ll look at that first and then get into the finer details of choosing the right photography backdrop for your photoshoot.
So, in no particular order, they are….
- Muslin backdrops
- Seamless paper backdrops
- Paper backdrops
- Vinyl backdrops
- Canvas backdrops
- Fabric backdrops
- Polyester backdrops
I’ve included a few tips for taking care of different types of backgrounds and a list of recommended backdrop suppliers at the end. Plus photos of a few of my favourite portable backdrops.
Muslin backdrops are durable fabric backdrops made of cotton and come in solid colors or textures and patterns that are painted or dyed. They’re without doubt one of the most popular types of backdrops materials, because they’re:
- Machine-washable (but check first as some hand painted ones aren’t)
- Come in a huge variety of colors, patterns and also sizes
- Have a rod pocket for easy set up with a portable background stand
My first ever backdrop was a muslin background and I still use it occasionally.
I have a huge plain white backdrop that’s perfect for large groups on location, a black backdrop that’s been used for all types of photography, including newborns (see below), and a textured brown one that’s perfect for portraits.
Pro tips for using muslin backgrounds:
- Rather than folding neatly, roll them up roughly (unless you want a pristine, wrinkle free backdrop)
- Use an iron or steam iron to remove wrinkles
- Wash in cold water
Seamless paper backdrops
A seamless paper backdrop is a solid color paper background rolled onto a hard cardboard core that can be mounted straight onto a background support system. When unrolled they resemble the shape of a cyclorama wall.
No photography studio is complete without a seamless paper backdrop. So much so that if you hire a photography studio, you can guarantee that it’ll be fitted with a collection of seamless paper rolls in various colors.
Aside from the full rainbow color choice, including chromagreen, what makes seamless paper backdrops a popular choice is that they’re cheap! If you want a variety of colors, paper backdrops are one of the most affordable options. When they get dirty, you just trim off the used paper, throw it away and roll out some more.
Seamless paper backdrops are the perfect background for headshots. You can use the smaller paper rolls, which are super portable and can be used with a mobile background stand. More on that in a minute. Seamless paper backdrops are also used heavily in fashion photography.
If you like to use gels for background color your best option is gray paper. Your gel colors will be much more saturated than with a white background.
Seamless paper backdrops come in different lengths, not just different widths. So if you don’t think you’ll use the paper much, or find it difficult to change rolls by yourself, you can get a shorter length, which will of course be lighter than the longer ones. It works out slightly more expensive over time, but anything that makes studio time less of a heavy workout is worth it in my opinion.
Paper roll backgrounds are ideal for full-length portraits as you can unroll the paper across the floor to create a seamless color background from floor to wall for your subjects to stand, sit or lie on. Even when doing headshots I unroll seamless paper all the way to the floor to give me the freedom to pull back for three quarter length shots. I’d rather not interrupt the flow of a shoot by having to adjust the background.
Because you can store the paper rolls rolled up in wall mounted storage brackets, they won’t take up much space in your studio. As an added bonus, a rainbow of paper rolls looks great and screams photography studio.
Pro tips for using seamless paper backgrounds:
- Use velcro strips, one near each end, to prevent the paper from unrolling when stored or hanging
- When unrolled, tape the end to the floor with masking tape to prevent the paper from moving
- To make it last longer, avoid walking on the paper with shoes
- The floor should be a hard surface so that it doesn’t bubble or crease under your subject’s feet
- When you unroll the paper, make sure that the curve where it rolls out onto the floor resembles a cyc wall, like a wide open C, to make your background as seamless as possible. If the C is too tight your lights will create shadows in the C making it noticeable. If it’s too wide it will pick up too much light
- People, young children in particular, aren’t aware of where the floor ends and the wall begins, so it’s a good idea to point out where they shouldn’t walk right at the start of the shoot. Keep an eye on this too as they’ll probably forget during the shoot. I’ve noticed that when you put people in front of a camera they tend to back away towards the wall, like a security thing.
Not all paper backgrounds are seamless paper or just solid color. You can get all kinds of interesting textures and patterns as paper backgrounds, particularly in small sizes, specifically for photography.
They’re ideal for newborn shoots and product photography.
However, being paper they’re not particularly tough and definitely not mess resistant. On the other hand, they’re really cheap, come in rolls (like really big gift wrapping) and are portable and lightweight.
These smaller paper rolls can be fixed to background stands with background clips and can also be used as floor drops, depending on the printed pattern.
I’ve even used a paper wall mural for a mini shoot series (see above and below). It was cheap and exactly the scene I wanted, but wasn’t non-reflective as it wasn’t made for photography so I had to be careful of reflections. It also involved a bit more editing than I would have liked to remove a few glare hotspots.
What I love about vinyl backdrops is the massive selection of colors, scenes and textures that are available, because they’re very lifelike printed backdrops. Like seamless paper, vinyl backdrops also come in chroma green (aka a green screen) for chroma key compositing.
Good quality vinyl backdrops:
- Are really tough and can be wiped down with a damp cloth, so are ideal for messy shoots like a cake smash (aka smash cake)
- Don’t crease and are easy to store rolled up
- Have a matte finish so that they don’t reflect studio lighting
Some, but not all, have a rod pocket for easy mounting to a backdrop stand. Smaller backdrops in particular probably won’t have a rod pocket. But that’s not a problem if you have background clips to clip them to the background stand’s telescoping crossbar.
Be aware that the quality of cheap vinyl backgrounds is significantly lower than the more expensive options. The two biggest issues that you’ll experience with cheap backgrounds (despite what the marketing blurb says) are:
- Glare or reflection of your lights
You can buy vinyl backdrops that come in one piece with a floor drop for a seamless background that looks like any scene – a beach, a room in a derelict building or even a staircase. The list is endless.
I love a brick wall background and for about 8 years I’ve used my painted white brick wall vinyl background for headshots, newborns, child portraits and product photoshoots, as well as filming tutorials. It’s still as good as the day I bought it.
Wooden floors fit with my portrait style, so I also have several vinyl floor drops in various designs that look like a wooden floor. This gives me consistency in style and variety for photoshoots, no matter where I photograph – as long as there’s a hard, flat surface. I always opt for a larger size floor drop so that I’m not restricted and don’t have to extend the background in Photoshop.
Pro tips for using vinyl backgrounds
The same as with paper rolls, plus:
- Don’t be tempted to roll them too tightly when storing as they’ll take longer to flatten out when unrolled
- Tubes are ideal storage containers – keep the tube they arrive in, if supplied.
Because canvas is robust and absorbs paint well, it’s one of the best photography backdrops to buy. Good quality, hand painted canvas backgrounds are a good investment for any photography business. A particularly good option if you like an old masters painterly style of portraits.
There are so many different colors available to buy online and you can even make your own!
Good quality canvas backdrop suppliers include:
- Kate Backdrop
- Gravity Backdrops
You don’t have to spend a fortune on photography backdrops. Over the years I’ve gathered a collection of interesting fabrics that work great as backgrounds, including curtains, blankets and just large pieces of fabric. What makes them interesting is the texture. My favorites are:
- Crushed velvet
You can use fabrics backdrops as they are by clipping them to a background stand’s horizontal pole, or sew in a rod pocket so that you can quickly and easily hang them from the background stand.
The advantage of velvet is that it absorbs light and doesn’t crease much, so black velvet makes a great solid black background that travels easily. It can also be used as a negative fill.
Polyester backdrops combine the interesting painterly quality of canvas backdrops with the versatility of vinyl backdrops. They look like vinyl backdrops and aren’t as heavy as canvas backdrops. (PS I’m not referring to cheap polyester fabric backdrops.)
Good quality polyester backdrops are a great alternative to canvas backdrops, which are heavier and more difficult to store, especially if you don’t have a studio.
Polyester looks similar to vinyl, but vinyl is tougher and offers more variety of colors, textures and backgrounds, because of the way they’re printed with sharp detail. Polyester is perfect for textures rather than a print that’s supposed to look real, like a wooden floor.
I like texture in the background rather than a scene or solid color and, as I mentioned, I like to use a larger size backdrop. I also shoot in several different studios, so I need a mobile background set up that’s more robust than a standard background stand. The polyester backdrops I use from Clickprops are supplied on sturdy aluminium rolls that fit onto a wall mounted roll up background system like the Manfrotto one. However, I have a motorised, remote controlled set up that fits onto two very sturdy stands instead of the wall.
Pro tips for using polyester backgrounds are the same as with paper rolls, plus:
- To clean wipe gently with a slightly damp cloth – remember they’re not as tough as vinyl
- Store in the cardboard box they’re supplied in
While collapsible backgrounds are the ideal solution for the mobile photographer working at clients’ offices or in different studios, they’re also great for studio portraits and product photographers, because they:
- Are very light and therefore portable
- Can be folded up and stored in their carry case, so take up very little room
- Don’t wrinkle when stored
- Come in a huge variety of colors and styles
- Can be double sided, so you get 2 backdrops in 1
Collapsible backgrounds come in a large range of sizes from the perfect for headshots size of 4 foot by 3 foot up to as big as 6 foot by 7 foot (like the Lastolite Hi-Lite below in the top left) for full length portraits.
Pro tip for using collapsible backgrounds…
- Make sure you practice folding up your background before you have to do it in front of a client! Once you know how, it’s really easy. Before I learned the technique I had to open up a Youtube video, in front of the client, to do it. Twice! It’s not a good look when you can’t pack up your own gear.
While there are many suppliers of collapsible backgrounds, Lastolite and Manfrotto are two of the biggest.
As I mentioned at the start, the size of your subject will dictate the size of the backdrop you need. That said, I’d also suggest if you’re studio based and don’t foresee having to set up in different locations, that you go for a bigger backdrop. Of course that’s also if your studio space is big enough.
For example, for a newborn photographer a 4 foot wide backdrop would be sufficient. But what if your client wants to add siblings to a newborn shoot? You’d be better off with a 5 foot wide backdrop, or even better if you have the space, a 9 foot wide backdrop so you can photograph the whole family.
Although photography backdrop materials come in a variety of sizes there are 2 standard sizes:
- 9 foot wide (2.72cm) x 11 foot (3.35cm) or longer
- 5 foot wide (1.52cm) x 11 foot (3.35cm) or longer
However, you can also easily get 4 foot wide backdrops. I also know of a backdrop company that sells what it calls “car size” backdrops, which are 7 foot wide. I thought that was a very clever marketing idea aimed at the mobile photographer. That said, I have a normal size hatchback car and can fit a standard 9 foot wide backdrop in. Just.
I’ve also had extra wide backdrops – a black seamless paper one and a white vinyl backdrop – as I used to do a lot of family portraits and the blown out white background look was popular. The vinyl one was really heavy though.
Backdrop stands fall into two categories:
Fixed backdrop system
Fixed backdrop stands are for studio photographers who don’t intend to use them anywhere else. They come in two, possibly three, parts:
- Rolling system
- Tension poles (if you can’t fit the system to a wall)
I highly recommend not skimping when you invest in backdrop stands. They’re going to hold a lot of weight and be used extensively, so it’s best to splash out a bit and buy good quality gear. My favourite brand for a wall mounted background system is Manfrotto.
If you aren’t able to screw the brackets into the wall, you could get tension poles to fit the brackets to.
While you can get single brackets, I’d recommend getting the 3 or 6 bracket type so that you can mount a variety of backdrops to change easily without having to take one down to change it.
Fixed backdrop stands are designed for seamless paper, polyester and vinyl backdrops. However, I also used mine with muslin backdrops and various fabrics I used as backgrounds. As long as the fabric backdrop has a rod pocket, all you need is a curtain pole, or background stand pole, to feed through the rod pocket and you can then hang them from the wall mounted bracket.
Which leads to the next type of backdrop stand, the mobile backdrop stand.
Clickprops polyester backdrop (Brown Punch) and vinyl floor (Black Wood Plank)
Mobile backdrop stand
Again, I’d recommend buying quality rather than cheap. I’ve had my Manfrotto background stand for 14 years and it’s still going strong, even though it’s worked very hard over the years.
A standard mobile background stand is about 10 foot wide and can’t take the same weight as a fixed background system, so should only be used for lightweight backdrops of up to 9 feet in width such as:
- Fabric backgrounds
- Small vinyl backgrounds i.e. up to 5 foot wide
- Small polyester backgrounds i.e. up to 5 foot wide
- Paper backgrounds up to 5 foot in width
Safety tips for mobile background stands:
- Make sure that you spread the legs of the backdrop stand wide so that they are as stable as possible, especially if there are small children or animals around
- I’d also recommend weighting the legs with a sandbag and putting something, like a chair, in front of each stand if small children are on set
- Set up as close to a wall as possible to prevent anyone going behind the stand and possibly having an accident
While it’s really handy for backdrops to have a rod pocket, it’s not entirely necessary as you can secure any lightweight materials to the stand’s telescoping crossbar (horizontal pole) with backdrop clips. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you should never be without backdrop clips, because not only can you hang backdrops with them, they’re also great for clipping backdrops to the stands to stretch out wrinkles.
How to take care of backdrops
Muslin backdrops are the easiest backdrop material to care for, which makes them one of the best backdrops for mobile photographers. They’re machine washable and wrinkle free. I don’t fold mine, but rather just roll it up roughly. I’d rather have random creases that you don’t really notice in the background than neat straight lines that are very obvious.
Vinyl backdrops are one of the easiest to care for as they’re quite tough, if you get good quality vinyl backdrops that is. If they get dirty, simply wipe them down with a damp cloth and why dry you can store them away again. I prefer to keep them stored rolled up as this takes up less space, but you could also store them hanging up. You could even fold them, but I prefer not to take that chance.
Good quality polyester backdrops can be wiped with a damp cloth, but you have to be more careful than with vinyl backdrops. They too can be stored rolled up.
However, I’d be very careful when storing cheap vinyl or polyester backdrops. In my experience, the cheap ones are only good for as long as you use them. Once you take them down and try to store them they’ll crease and be ruined.
Quality photography backdrop suppliers
- Clickprops – vinyl and polyester
- Savage Universal – canvas, seamless paper
- Kate Backdrop – canvas, collapsible, seamless paper
- Gravity Backdrops – canvas
- Oliphant Studio – canvas
- Creativity Backgrounds (Europe only) – seamless paper, paper rolls
You’re spoiled for choice on Amazon, but if you prefer to buy from trusted photographic suppliers, two good ones in the US are Adorama and B&H Photo and in the UK I highly recommend Wex Photo Video.
Top tips for photographing with backdrops
One of the biggest problems photographers first encounter when they start using backdrops is how to avoid shadows in the background. A quick tip is to ensure that your subject is at least 5 feet from the backdrop, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
For more top tips, read How to avoid shadows in indoor photography (on walls and backdrops)
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