Mini Old School Class on White Background.
If there's one subject that comes up again and again on lighting forums it is: "What is the correct way to light and prep for a white drop out background?" Time and time again the bold rush in to suggest everything from blasting the background with one huge flash to shooting against black and just cutting it out with Gimp Tools XP10. But there is actually a method that used to be taught in all the photo schools or learned at the feet of the guys who did it before you. And it made sense back then.
I thought I'd put this up for three reasons: I like the image of the skater. I was playing with the pen tool I've had for ten years and remembered how much I like to scrawl things across photos. And finally, a younger photographer, who will have to do many, many of these kinds of shots asked me to.
In the shot above I'm starting by rolling out a nine foot wide seamless backdrop of Super White paper. I roll it so that the front end (right behind the skater) is at least 12 feet from the plane of the hanging paper in the far background. This allows me put an even light on all of the background but leaves me enough room to scrim the background light off the skater with black panels.
I'm using five lights on the background. There are two flash heads on either side of the set and all four of them have white umbrellas with black backings on them. They are aimed at the opposite sides of the seamless so the light feathers across the surface. I've also added a center light, high up to both clean up the middle of the background and also provide additional light (via careful feathering) to the paper that's spread across the floor behind our model. I always attempt to light the backgrounds so that every surface that shows to the camera is within a 1/3 stop of everything else. Having too much light in a spot is just as bad as not having enough when you don't have the luxury of hands-on post processing.
In front of the background paper I've placed four sturdy milk carton holders to elevate my model's platform. I've placed a stout piece of plywood under the shiny, white Pleixglas for support. Having the platform raised means that, at the angle I want to shoot my dancer and the focal length I'll use, I'm actually seeing the far end of the white paper at her foot level instead of the part of the paper nearest the camera. This is pure white and gives me a great reflection back on the shiny plexiglas surface which works to obliterate detail and go as white as possible. It also gives me a nice reflection of the skater's blades and shoes right in front of her.
The one boom arm you see coming into the frame on the left hand side is tightly secured to a solid tether and it there so the skater can reach out and steady herself if she starts to lose her balance.
I'm using a large (54 by 72 inch) Chimera softbox from about 45 degrees to the left, in front of the skater and just far enough away so that it won't show in camera. The only other source of illumination is a white fill reflector from the opposite side.
I meter (with an incident meter) the background and get a reading. In this case it was probably f11 and 1/3 stops. I then meter while adjusting the distance of the softbox to the model until I get a reading that's one third of a stop darker on the model. In this way I am assured that the background will go pure white but I'm equally assured that the least amount of light will spill forward from the background lighting to contaminate (and lower the contrast of) the model at the front of the set. In this situation all we left for the color separator was to clean up the area around the model's feet.
Even in the zenith of our digital days I can think of several reasons (all lighting and lens oriented) to maintain the same lighting practice. Less spill means less veiling flare. And, as I've written, less unwanted contamination on the subject. The even-ness of the background means that, even though you will be using the selection tool in Photoshop you'll have less issues to deal with and will spend less time with "refine edge." Finally, if you get used to doing it correctly you'll see that it also works just as well for video. And it's easier than "green screening" everything and fixing it all up in post...
I won't get into the argument about "incident meter versus reflected" or exactly how to hold your light meter. I think that's too personal to talk about on a public blog. And I do think you'll figure out your own technique. After all, you can see the results right away now. But can you see 1/3 stop above white, on your camera's histogram? Meters are still relevant.
We took the day off today. Back tomorrow to discuss portfolios for the new age of screen dominance. Maybe.