How to Use a Gray Backdrop to Achieve 4 Different Results

Gray is the color when you need one background that can be modified into practically any shade for your studio portrait photography sessions. It can be made to look dark black or pure white—or with the help of some gels be converted into any number of funky shades you may fancy. In this quick video tutorial Gavin Hoey from shows us how:

Photographers are often hard-pressed by the kind of equipment that they have to work with. Sometimes it’s not even about the equipment but the tiny space that they have to work from, which limits their choice of equipment, props, and background.

For this demonstration Hoey, working from a small 16 x 25 foot studio, uses a single gray background for all his portrait shots. Applying simple rules of lighting and a few props and gels, he created four distinct looks.

Simple Gray Background

For the first shot, for the natural gray look, Hoey places the model close to the wall and fires a single StreakLight, through a softbox, toward the model. This is the test shot:

gray background for portraits

Test shot with the gray background

To perfect the look, Hoey next puts a grid on top of the softbox and asks the model to step further back against the wall while bringing the light right up to her. This is to ensure that the light is more directional and the exposure on the model and the background wall is identical.

using a gray background for portraits

Gray background with grid

Pure Black Background with a Gray Backdrop

For the pure black look, Hoey conjures the Inverse Square Law. Basically, the further away the background is from the light source, the darker it will be. So, Hoey asks the model to, you guessed it right, step away from the wall. The light was placed very close to the model.

how to work with a gray background

The pure black look

Washed Out White Background with a Gray Backdrop

To make the background go pure white is a challenge. This cannot be done using a single light. Hoey brings in another light, which is carefully hidden behind the model and facing the background. Be careful not to overexpose with the background light or the light bouncing off of the wall will make the hair appear burnt-out.

gray background, washed out white look

The pure white look

Colorful Background with a Gray Backdrop

For the funky look Hoey brings in some gels. A red and a blue combine together to create purple. With the gels popped onto the background light, Hoey meters the background light at f/11.

Gray background With gelled streaklight

With the background light gelled

To spice up the scene and make it more interesting Hoey brings in a prop.

how to use gels with background lights

The final look

Tip: Make sure you meter the light each time you change the position of the model or use gels, etc.

So, there you have it. A single versatile background and four distinct looks for your portrait sessions!

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