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Backdrops Are as Important as the Model

Admit it photo geeks! When you look at a photograph of a model you don’t always zero in on how the shot was composed, nor the model’s eyes. You inspect the backdrop. You check its texture, color, how it was lit, and how well it complements the model. At least I do, because that’s what I look for during the creative process while shooting. What’s interesting is that the viewing public tends not to notice the backdrop in the final image – as long as the photographer chose it properly.

Photographers must decide wisely no matter what type of photography they’re doing, whether it’s a portrait session, product shoot, video shoot or commercial shoot. The question of which photo backdrop to use depends on the desired look of course but let’s narrow things down a bit more. Among the backdrops most commonly used, two in particular seem to find their way into all studios at one point or another: Muslin (cloth) and seamless paper backdrops, both of which have been used successfully for decades. The classic look that these two types of backdrops can offer makes them consistently popular for all kinds of photography.

savage blue jay seamless paper headshotPhoto Courtesy of: Ryan Walsh, Featuring: Blue Jay Seamless Paper

Muslin vs. Seamless Paper Backdrops

Savage Widetone Seamless Background Paper has been around for over 60 years which means it’s a go-to product for pros looking to get consistent results. It’s relatively inexpensive and makes a good cost-effective option. With over 60 color choices you can capture any look imaginable. The non-reflective texture and different available widths (26”, 53”, 86″ and 107”) makes it easy to light and shoot.

Savage Muslin Backdrops are made from 100% cotton material and are glare free, washable, and durable. They come with sewn sleeves for a supporting rod, although they’re light enough to hang from improvised supports on location. Savage’s Muslins quickly and easily create a professional look while also offering versatility. They come in a variety of patterns and styles, from solid colors to retro-print backgrounds, all with seamless construction to eliminate background lines. There are big differences between muslins and seamless paper, however, so let’s take a look at why each has its place in a photographer’s toolbox.

Best Fit for the Subject

What works for high-key shots of an infant may not work for a formal adult portrait, and of course personal taste factors into your choice of a backdrop too. The issue of muslin vs. seamless paper isn’t so much about one having inherently better qualities than the other – it’s about which is a best fit for the subject in front of your lens. And which best conveys the look you want to impart.

savage bogata hand painted muslinPhoto Courtesy of: Ryan Walsh, Featuring: Bogata Hand Painted Muslin Backdrop

During one commercial shoot, I had a client who wanted a dark background in order to highlight a model holding a light bulb. The only source of illumination was to be that light bulb. It gave off just enough light to illuminate the model’s face but otherwise it had to be dark. I went with a solid black muslin to make sure there would be no reflection from the bulb, which allowed me to completely black out the background. It worked perfectly for this low-key shoot. The muslin hung easily from a support stand in the studio and I was off and running.

Advantages of Muslin Backdrops

One advantage that muslins enjoy over seamless paper is that it is much more portable than a large roll of seamless. Simply fold a muslin up or roll it and stuff it into a bag. It’s that easy to transport. By packing along a folding support stand you can quickly set up a professional photo backdrop anywhere. Because muslin is lightweight however, a stand can be improvised easily. Some photographers prefer the patterns and textures that muslin offers as opposed to the clean seamless look of paper. You can steam muslin to remove wrinkles, or use techniques such as dialing a wide aperture and a little distance from the backdrop to produce a soft background.

Muslin backdrops also enjoy more durability than seamless paper. It’s harder for a model to tear a hole in a muslin backdrop with her shoes than it is with a paper backdrop. Thus, one muslin background is an investment that can last for many years. 

See more: Pros and Cons of Using Muslin Backdrops

model on ruby seamless paperPhoto Courtesy of: Ryan WalshFeaturing: Ruby Seamless Paper

Advantages of Paper Backdrops

Seamless paper isn’t as portable as muslin backdrops due to the size of the rolls and the need for a stand, but seamless is the backdrop most photographers use when shooting high-key lighting. The clean, smooth look that seamless paper provides makes it easy to white out a background for that immaculate appearance that is currently all the rage in advertising imagery. 

See more: 5 Reasons to Use Backdrop Paper

Some clients want a crisp photo background in their commercial portraiture; for this look, seamless paper is the way to go. There’s no need to iron wrinkles as with muslin. When seamless paper gets dirty or creased, you simply tear off the soiled portion and unroll more for a perfectly clean background. If a particular color is needed beyond the basics, Savage’s Widetone paper comes in dozens of shades from Tulip pink to Sky Blue, making seamless a great choice for achieving an exact color. It really just depends on what you’re shooting. Both muslin and seamless paper have their strengths and weaknesses, but either will give great results when used properly. I enjoy using both in order to have the utmost versatility.  

Elias Butler

Elias Butler is a professional photographer and writer based in Arizona. He's written a book titled "Grand Obsession" and has been published in Sierra, USA Today, and Arizona Highways among many others. See Butler's website here.


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