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How to Work With a White Background in Digital Photography

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Shawn S. Lealos•updated: 6/27/2011

Artificial background colors can be a great option, though it requires a very specific type of construction or post-production. Here is a look at the benefits and challenges of shooting against a background that is white and how to make it work for you, rather than against you.

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    Going Unnatural

    Photography is about capturing images out in the world and saving them, but this does not have to mean that these images are naturally occurring. Instead, you may want to use artificial means to create a certain type of image that you will then take a photo of. This can go all the way from constructed image photography to simply working with an artificial background that you may not be able to find very easily. In different types of photography, but especially portrait photography, you will often find the occurrence of a white background. This image of a glowing white space is fundamentally unnatural and is something that has to either be created using special techniques during the photographic period or afterwards during post-production. Here are some tips on working with this type of background in still photography, whether it is on site or just altered through a computer program.

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    The White Room

    Portrait Laughing Girl The primary thing to keep in mind in this white background photography tutorial is that this is fundamentally unnatural and you will not be able to find something suitable in the real world. Instead, this is usually going to be done in a studio of some sort where you can create a white background through a controlled process. When you are looking for how to make the background of your pictures white when you are actually shooting them you will have to create interplay between light and surface.

    You have several options when you are actually in the studio, though there are specific things you will do for your photography lighting. First you can take a white backdrop of some sort, such as a white painted cyclorama or a white wall. You will then light the wall as brightly and evenly as possible, taking queues from the way that you light a green screen used in compositing. Another option is to take large-scale silk and then use lighting from behind the sheet to give it a bright white image. To do this you will again want to light the back of the silk as evenly as possible, likely diffusing the light that is then further diffused through your background silk.

    What these options will end up doing is creating an artificially white background that will seem similar to certain types of photography, like advertising and fashion photography.

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    When you are working with this artificially white scenario you will have to light the subjects and objects somewhat differently than you might Girl Lies in Armchair normally. If the white background is a solid wall with all of the light being pointed at it then you will find that it is hard to avoid strong shadows. To do this you will want to extend the broad and flat lighting you used on the wall itself to the subjects and objects. If you are lighting for small objects with a white background you can use a sharper lighting on the objects themselves as long as it is pointed from directly above or off to the sides so as to avoid a shadow on the wall.

    Part of the negotiation you will make when figuring out how to light for this situation is going to be how much of the subject you want to show, which can allow you to cut off or show certain areas of the background. If you have dramatic shadows coming from different areas of your subject then you may just want to close in on them so as to create a seamless background. If you are lighting for small objects with a white background you have even more options since it will be easier to come very close to them. No matter what, you want to make sure to never break up this artificially white background with any shadows because it works in a way that is non-natural, and any natural play of light will destroy the sensibility it requires.

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    Photo Editing

    If you are trying to figure out how to make the background of your pictures white after they are photographed, you will have to put them through a photo editing process in a piece of software such as Adobe Photoshop. The primary task that you are going to want to do is to blow out the background while making the foreground able to be seen. To do this you want to matte out the background, separating the background onto its own layer. Once this has been done you will brighten, apply desaturation, and alter the background until it comes in at a bright white. Once the layers are put back together and exported your image will come out with a white background while the foreground will remain exactly as it was, unless you wanted to do some standard photo editing on that as well.

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    Portrait Girl Lauging

    Girl Lies in Armchair

    Source: Author's own experience.