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Having skills in a variety of lighting techniques for your photo backdrop can give you some wonderful options for creating beautiful imagery for either products or portraits. By brushing up on your exposure and composition know-how along with practicing prior to your actual shoot date you’ll quickly be able to build a portfolio showing off your creative depth.

The Basics

There are four basic points to remember when determining what effect you want to achieve and how to light your backdrop.

1. The backdrop color

2. The distance between your subject and backdrop

3. The main light

4. Flagging the lights

Black Backdrop

A totally black backdrop adds drama to any image. All attention is directed to your subject and it’s a great technique to try whether you’re shooting a newborn or a corporate executive.

Background Lighting Techniques


The general rule of thumb is to make the lighting on your backdrop three stops darker than the subject so it will appear black. If your distance is over 20 feet, you could have a white seamless and still achieve the look of a black seamless (keep in mind there must be no light spills and you must use a fast enough shutter speed).(1)


Make sure your subject is at least 3 feet in front of backdrop to achieve the 3-stop rule. Place flags or gobos between the lights and backdrop so no light hits it.


A three-head light kit with stands should do the trick. You can use any color backdrop, although a color like Black seamless is the easiest to start with. Again, if you follow the exposure rule above, even using a gray or even a blue backdrop will give the results you want.

White Backdrop

High-key portraits with a blown-out background work well when shooting e-commerce fashion or when shooting headshots where you want to achieve a fresh, modern look. The key to this background lighting technique is to flood the background with light!

Background Lighting Techniques

Background Lights

Position these lights to point at the backdrop and use manual settings to achieve the “blown out highlights” effect. Make sure the light reading is at least 3 stops higher than the light on your subject. 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.

Main Light

Use one main light for your subject, either a softbox or on camera flash that is directed up to bounce off the ceiling and a fill card.

Seamless Paper

Starting with a seamless, like Super White, will make your task easier however with the exposure rule (that you now have down pat, right?) you could easily use a darker background.

Background Lighting Techniques

Other Techniques

Hidden Lights

Use hidden lights for a subject propped up on a table or stand. Try just one light to create a “spotlight” effect, or two lights on the ground hidden behind the stand or table and pointed upward toward the backdrop.

Crossed Beams

For both the standing and hidden background lights, position the light heads so their beams cross before hitting the photo backdrop. Crossing the beams eliminates shadows and spotlight effects and ensures the whole background illuminates without black holes.(3)

See more: A Guide to Studio Lighting Technique

Location Shoots

Even shooting on location you can achieve some background lighting magic. The sun moves around throughout the day — think east to west as well as dawn to dusk. Analyze what time of the day the sun will project the light on your subject at the desired angle. Note: Hard light (direct sun) will create darker shadows while diffused light (cloudy overcast) will create softer shadows.

  • Try a short focal length and blur the background to put the focus on your subject.
  • Match the background to your subject’s wardrobe or even eye color to tie the shot together.
  • Re-position the subject with the light behind to get an “edge” effect. Use a bounce card or fill-flash to remove any shadows in the front.

Cheryl Woods

Cheryl Woods is an accomplished photographer, designer and branding consultant with a career spanning 20+ years. Her photographic work includes editorial, fashion, portraiture and product photography for major companies in the consumer products field including QVC and Hanover Direct. She received a B.F.A. in Photography from the University of the Arts and an M.F.A. in Media Design from Full Sail University. Cheryl's work has been exhibited at the Lowes Museum of Art in Coral Gables, FL, The New York Independent Film Festival and the Rosenwald Wolf Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. Check out her website here!


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