DIY White Seamless Background Howto Part 1 of 5

This is the first part in a little series, which I expect to run to 5 parts, about my experience with doing a “white seamless background” look, with mostly DIY parts; and weaving in the use of tethering software.

  • Part one will discuss why I’m writing this, why you should read it, and why you might want to do it anyway.
  • Part two will be how I set up the physical environment with totally inadequate space and inappropriate materials; a too small room, off-white crumpled fabric, not quite white wooden boards and at least one bamboo lightstand.
  • Part three will be how I set up my lights and determine the correct power level for the flashes using a combination of a grey card, spot metering, tethering, Adobe Camera Raw, some logic and a healthy dose of guesswork and trial and error.
  • Part four will be actually shooting in this environment, mainly using tethering in order to do self portraits and also to check results as I go.
  • Part five will then be post processing, particularly how I compensate for limitations in my studio, my equipment and my skills!

It may take me a while to get to all these parts, but hey, a guy has to have goals in life, right? ūüôā

So first, why I’m writing this, why you should read it, and why you might want to do it anyway

My main reason for myself is that I was pleasantly surprised with the results I managed to obtain when I did this for myself. I had read various tutorials and guides and knew that I was missing some essential ingredients to do this “properly”, most importantly the sufficiently large space and the seamless paper.

As my stubborn insistence on trying anyway has lead to some usable results I wanted to capture what I’d done in writing, and by writing about it and therefore forcing myself to go through the whole process again methodically, perhaps to improve what I have done.

Why then should you read what I am writing here given that I’m clearly an absolute-beginner who has done this about 3 times and probably doesn’t know what he is doing. Well firstly I suppose you could be an even less experienced person who has done it zero times. But in that case shouldn’t you be reading advice from someone who has done it a thousand times? Of course you should read that, but I believe that as a beginner who has only just had his “ah ha” moment I’m closer to it and perhaps can describe things in way that will¬†interest¬†another beginner.

Of course another reason you might want to read this is so you can laugh heartily at my many mistakes and downright errors! If so, please feel free to keep your comments to yourself. ūüôā

More charitably (on my or your part) perhaps you’d want to give me some pointers to improve what I’ve done? Criticism, constructive or otherwise, does not sit easily with me I will admit, but advice is always welcome.

Lastly, why would anybody want to shoot on a white seamless background – and a DIY one at that. ¬†For me it was initally just “because”, it seemed an interesting thing to do and a bit of a challenge. ¬†Combined with that is seeing those posters of models in clothing stores (where I live it is Uright and Bossini) blown up to about twice life size that always look so cool.

Once I had done it though I realized it presents a few additional advantages:

  • You don’t have to worry about composing the background, there is no background. For me that was a big one as I’m still struggling a lot with backgrounds; I have not yet trained my eye properly to see everything in the frame through the viewfinder. ¬†And so find most of my shots tend to have unwanted things behind or intersecting with the object I am trying to capture. ¬†While I will continue to work to train my eye meanwhile I’d like some nice shots of my wife and kids which are not ruined by junk in the background.
  • Compositing suddenly becomes a lot easier. ¬†You want to duplicate yourself 3 times in the same shot? ¬†Now you don’t have to worry about difficult cutting out and not matching edges. ¬†Every edge is white, it becomes easy.
  • Your background suddenly becomes¬†expendable; you want it to appear that you are on a larger set? ¬†Just expand the canvas.
  • And of course there is room for type if you’re doing a Christmas card!

As for why DIY — well because it is cheap and because I can get it here and now with materials at hand. ¬†Where I live getting a 9 foot roll of paper delivered is not really and option.

So there you go. ¬†Why I’m writing this, why you might want to read it, and why do white background shots anyway. ¬†That’s all I have for part one and now that I’ve started I’ll have to finish this one day!

Demo Video for DIYPhotobits.com Camera Control 2.1

I thought it was well past time that I did some more explanation of how to use the new features in DIYPhotobits.com Camera Control 2.1.

Turns out my video skills need a bit of work though as I ended up putting together a 10 minute video, the YouTube limit, and only covered half the features. Still, I hope this is helpful both to see what sort of thing the script is useful for — in this case I’m covering self-portrait balancing flash vs ambient ala Strobist.

 

(Click through and view the high quality version if you want to read the text!)

Equipment used:

  • 1 x SB-600 at camera left set at manual 1/4 power with a folding paper grid spot ¬†on a bamboo light stand
  • 1 x SB-800 at camera right, also manual 1/4 power
  • Nikon D300 with a 18-55mm¬†
  • Pop-up flash on the D300 is the trigger for the flashes
  • Long USB cable, plus a USB extender cable
  • Thinkpad X31

I cover the use of the remote shutter release, combined with shutter, aperture and ISO controls to take and download images as well as using Bridge to view them.

What I ran out of time to do before the YouTube 10 minute limit was tethered shooting from the camera, and external viewer push. ¬†Perhaps I’ll try to do another short video covering those, but I do really want to work on the next features!

While doing this demo I also noted some odd slowness of the script in some situations, particularly M vs P mode that I’m unable to explain at the moment, so will spend some time to investigate that and hopefully speed the whole thing up.

DIY Grey Card

I was checking out Profotolife’s list of cheapo photo gifts and one of the suggestions was a set of grey cards, and that reminded me I always wanted to do a print my own grey card. ¬†Now a grey card, like the “real” Kodak¬†Gray Card 18% R-27 or the cheapie Mennon ones I use, are actually painted¬†pieces of card that are of exactly neutral grey (18% aka Zone 5) and are used for two purposes:

 

  1. To set Exposure — because meters are expecting 18% grey
  2. To set White Balance — because they are designed to be of completely neutral colour
It’s really useful if you are doing landscape photography

, in low light,  or care a lot about colour accuracy for example with product shots.

 

Now before you tell me let me say I already know that it is impossible to print your own grey card that can serve either of these purposes accurately.  The paper and inks that we use at home in ordinary inkjet printers are not going to give accurate results, there will be a colour cast, and the density is not going to be right.

If you have a top of the line printer, proper photo paper and inks, and are printing with a properly calibrated printer profile then it is going to be better — but it still won’t be accurate when seen under different types of lights. ¬†e.g. it might be right in sunlight, but in shade it’s wrong.

So, this is impossible – so what am I writing this about? ¬†Well I know it’s going to be inaccurate but the question is how¬†inaccurate and is it better than nothing? ¬†

Also given that I’ve mention I have a real grey card why should I want to DIY print my own on an inkjet printer? ¬†Well I do have a valid answer to that — the cards themselves are a bit bulky and rather fragile (gets marked so easily) so I tend not to carry them around. ¬†Hence they don’t get used much which sort of defeats the purpose. ¬†If I could print my own I could carry them all the time because I would make small ones and be able to make new ones if they became damaged.

Therefore, on to the test!

First step is to make a Photoshop file and fill a rectangle on it with 18% grey. ¬†So what colour is that? ¬†If you think in 8 bits like me then I’d guess that would be RGB values of 127 127 127 — however I’ve seen a good argument made that it should be 118 118 118. ¬†So I tried both and at least for me the 118 is better — that may well be an accident of my printer/paper/ink combo.

 

This was on 3rd party noname coated matt “inkjet paper” which actually prints ok on my HP OfficeJet 5500 which is a 4 ink printer. ¬†All the printing was done with all colour management off (both photoshop and the printer driver) as I don’t have believable profiles for this printer.

 

Now the tests

Exposure

Testing at ISO 100 (well, “L1” on my D300 which is ISO100 equivalent) at f/16 in bright sunlight at midday gave me:

 

  • Mennon grey card – 1/125s
  • DIY 127 – 1/250s to 1/200s
  • DIY 118 – 1/125s to 1/160s¬†

That’s using spot metering in the middle of the card, getting up close and out of focus to average things out. ¬†And yes the DIY ones seemed more variable and sensitive to slight changes in position or angle than the real card.

 

So generally the DIY grey card at RBG of 118 118 118 was more accurate — close enough to be usable, certainly if shooting RAW with that stop or stop and a half lattitude you get with RAW.

But how about for colour correction? ¬†To me that’s more interesting really as exposure meters in matrix mode are really perfectly good enough, and you can always chimp the histo or look at the blinkies if you have some extreme cases.

Colour White balance setting

So using the DIY Grey card for WB correct is the next thing to test — and again results will vary wildly depending on printer and paper but for myself the results were mediocre at best. ¬† I printed out a sheet and then shot the real grey card beside the DIY one under different light sources — then in ACR I measured the WB using the dropper tool from the different greys and also from the “white” paper.¬†

Results:

Sunlight

 

  • Real grey card – 5150K +8 tint
  • DIY grey card – 6000K -5 tint
  • White paper – 5450K -10 tint

Shade

  • Real grey card – 8700K +16 tint
  • DIY grey card – 10750K +8 tint
  • White paper – 12000K -1 tint
CFL –¬†Compact fluorescent lamp
  • Real grey card – 2750K +26 tint
  • DIY grey card – 2700K +15 tint
  • White paper – 2750K +18 tint
Tungsten

  • Real grey card – 3150K +1 tint
  • DIY grey card – 3250K +18 tint
  • White paper – 3150K -9 tint
Fluorescent 
  • Real grey card – 5900K +40 tint
  • DIY grey card – 6750K +28 tint
  • White paper – 6050K +30 tint
I graphed a bit of this and it doesn’t show a lot of pattern I think — neither they DIY card nor the white paper gave accurate readings (which I define as being the same as the grey card). ¬† So is the DIY grey card better for this than simply white paper? ¬†Yes and no, it depends on the light. ¬†
For your amusement here are the test files I used:
So that’s the end of my print-your-own DIY Grey card adventure. ¬† I think I’ll start carrying a piece of folded up A4 white paper in my camera bag — yes printed fake 18% grey on one side — because it is¬†better than nothing, or taking a WB reference point from someone’s shirt collar or a piece of concrete (which is often pretty “mid grey”).
But now at least I’ll have a good concept of how¬†inaccurate it is — namely very!
Update:
Hm…. ¬†Maybe I’ll go back to “white” paper…

You know what a Justin Clamp is, right?

If you follow any of the small light shooters or “strobism” in general as I do then you’ll have come across the “Justin Clamp” quite a few times in passing. ¬†If not, then lets just say it is an ugly beast that provides several useful ways to attach something to something else — typically a hotshoe flash to a pole, shelf, tripod leg or probably someone’s nose if they stay still long enough.

Supposedly it was invented by Justin Stailey (formerly of Bogen, now of Leica USA per Drew Gardner)  to satisfy the need of one particular photographer, but anyone can buy one if you are prepared to part with the cash.

It comes with a cold shoe but it may be a bit tight for the SB-900, but works fine with an SB-800. ¬†Now I haven’t got a 900 but presume that like a SB800 it comes with it’s own cold foot or stand – the AS-19 which is a often ignored but very useful piece of kit.

This gives me a simple option to DIY a replacement for a Justin Clamp, for cheap.  A Bulldog clip from a stationary store, bolt and a couple of nuts and I have this.

Shown here clamping onto a bookcase with flannel to get a good grip without scratching the wood.

And if you are wondering why I don’t use those big clamps with the green or orange rubber tips, it’s because I can’t find any place that sells them around here!

Finally, if you want a real Justin Clamp – which is better but more expensive than a DIY version then you can always buy one from B&H. They are $56.95 but like any Bogen stuff will probably last your whole lifetime!

DIY Bamboo Light Stand

Why a bamboo light stand?  Well if you are a reader of Strobist

then you know that lightstands are very handy — if not read here first. ¬†Of course a factory built one is simple and probably the best option

, but it isn’t exactly cheap. ¬†Particularly if you want more than one — and you will, you’ll want several. ¬†There’s your main light, then fill, then hair and rim lights, and what about some reflectors and… ¬†you get the picture. ¬†Just try not to over-do the whole speedlight thing, heh?

Now one good solution to keep Strobist from hurting your wallet is the Stick in a Can, click that link and watch the video if that name doesn’t mean anything to you, but good/cheap and DIY as that is it isn’t great for portability. ¬†I mean how many cans full of concrete can you carry about – even in the back of your car?

So here is my solution to the problem — which makes sense for me because were I live bamboo is cheap cheap cheap. ¬†This light stand uses three 6 foot pieces of bambo, some brass bolts and a piece of string. ¬†The bolts and string cost me more than the bamboo.

If you live somewhere where bamboo is an exotic import and costs a fortune, well then this post is of only academic interest. ¬†Though flip through the pictures and maybe consider doing the same out of PVC tubing? ¬†I understand that’s pretty cheap — using PVC tubing for photo stands is not new of course. ¬†But that’s another topic.¬†

As we are visual types I’ll start with a slide show that shows what the stand looks like and how it’s used. ¬†And I’ll follow up with some more details in another post.

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