Let's discuss what an illuminated backdrop really is.
A traditional backdrop is made of various materials... you know, paper, muslin, vinyl, satin... and the list goes on. You have to consider illuminating your subject and the background while balancing exposures of everything in the frame. It's an art, really - especially if you're using flash to illuminate the scene.
On the other hand, an illuminated backdrop is usually made out of a nylon/diffusion type material and does just the name says... illuminates.
It eliminates a lot of the issues associated with using traditional backdrops for headshots and portraits. Let's discuss the benefits now.
Right off the bat - you'll realize you won't have to worry about a hair light to separate your subject from the background. The light from behind them will do just that. All you'll need to worry about is angling the light in the front to where you need it.
You wont have to worry about wrinkles. Seeing as wrinkles (when looking at them in a photo) are nothing more than shadows. Shadows casted in different ways creates shape, and wrinkles are no different. However, seeing as you're illuminating the entirety of the backdrop (with a great deal of light) - all of the wrinkles disappear. You won't see them if the background is lit properly.
Traditionally, backdrops are illuminated from the front. However, there are materials like microfiber that perform really well if illuminated from behind (shooting light through the backdrop). But lighting the backdrop from inside the backdrop itself... can completely change things.
We're recommending a sort of backdrop box. It's basically a large softbox made out of diffusion material.
When light is shot inside the box, the light is scattered evenly throughout. What this does is give you an evenly lit backdrop. You don't have to worry about hotshots (which are common when shooting from the front or behind). The light is trapped within the backdrop at that point. You won't get a gradient effect - light is evenly spread across the entire surface. To achieve this, you'll need a large surface (which is what we're going to recommend here shortly).
Think of this as a traditional softbox but without that hotspot in the middle.
Another benefit is not having to worry about light spilling onto anything else within your scene (which can be a headache in itself, in certain situations).
Before you see what we recommend - I thought it would be fitting to let you know that you can achieve a very similar look to what we've been talking about this far with a diffuser/scrim.
The larger the scrim, the better. You can even look into large diffusion material mounted on stands. These vary in size but can be as large as 6x10'. Or you can go the 5x7 diffusion disc route. Whatever works best for you financially and your needs.
The only tip I have is to set you light or flash 4+ feet away from the material. This will allow the light to spread. Of course, when it hits the material, you may need to adjust power to compensate for the distance - but assuming you have a powerful enough flash or continuous light - you'll get to where you need to be.
Think about that for a second. This is a high-key/low contrast look. So, anything 'professional/fun/happy' can be taken in front of a backdrop like this. Here are a few types of sessions that you'd benefit from using this setup.
Honestly, if you are proactive this look for long enough and get good enough at it - you could build an entire photography business around this look.
Seeing as you'll get a high-key look when using an illuminated backdrop - you wouldn't want to take anything that is wanted on the opposite end of that spectrum. This would include:
Basically, if you're going for grunge/'old world'/textured/painterly looks - avoid this kind of backdrop and fall back to traditional methods.
Before we talked about mounting/hanging this kind of backdrop - we thought we would give you our recommendation. You'll see, the mounting/hanging of this kind of backdrop is unique.
We only recommend one backdrop - Lastolite Hilite Background
It comes in two different sizes, and it is essentially a box. As seen in the photos, you're able to shoot continuous or flash through the sides of the box - that light then fills and illuminates the box.
The standard size is 6x7,' and you shouldn't have an issue getting a few subjects in frame with a backdrop of that size.
As previously stated, it's a little different mounting this compared to a traditional backdrop.
For starters, the backdrop comes with stands to mount it standing up. So you get that when you purchase the backdrop.
You'll need to know how to hang it - if that is what you want to do. This is great for outdoors or areas where the floor isn't as clean as you'd like it.
As seen in the photo below - it's actually quite simple. Lastolite sells its own stands made specifically for this.
I have emailed their support to get a link for their stands. Unfortunately, I can't find them anywhere at the moment. I will update this article once I get a response.
Well, we went over everything there is to know about illuminated backdrops. This includes what they are, what they're great for (and not-so-great), and where to purchase them. It's now your turn to decide whether illuminated backdrops will work for you! First, think about how high-key images look and whether that's the style you like and want to move forward with it.
This type of backdrop is a significant investment. So you want to know, for sure, that this is something you want to pursue.
Be sure to check out our pillar article, What Makes a Good Photography Backdrop: The Ultimate Guide, where we talk about all the major backdrop materials and different themed backdrops. Who knows, you may find a backdrop that speaks to you more there!
Until next time, be safe and keep creating!