White background with Christianne

Normally I post a few more images from workshops but this time I decided to keep it to one shot and some explanation about that shot and how to achieve the effect yourself.

Working with white backgrounds
For ages working with white backgrounds have been a trend, you saw them everywhere and to be honest I loved the look but I have to admit there has been some overkill, maybe that’s also a reason I don’t use the white backgrounds a lot, for me the new white is gray but when you look at my portfolio I think that’s is quiet obvious. The main problem when working with white is blowing out details in the hairs or in more extreme cases even infecting the subject. In this blog post some small tips which can help you fighting these problems and working around it.

Light setup and flagging
For this kind of shots I always use two strobes on the background which are fitted with the Elinchrom Wide reflectors which are awesome for this application and very affordable. Both are aimed at the background and placed just slightly behind the model to optimize the distance between the strobes to the background (the more the better), both are aimed towards the opposite side of the background (cross), but with the wide reflectors this is not really a big deal because they cover a lot of ground. In this shot my main light was the Elinchrom Deep octa with lighttools grid. I love a more high contrast look and by using this modifier you will get great results. Placing the light closer to the model will give me a more rapid light fall off and that determines a great part of this look. For the accent I used the Chimera striplight, but you can also use any other light source of course. In this case the accent was set at 1/5 stops below the main light. When you work in a studio where reflections are a problem you will have to flag your model, this can be done quite easy by placing two large black frames next to model (sandwiching the model), and those doesn’t have to be expensive. When you want it cheap go to a store where they sell rolling clothing racks and cover those with black cloth and your DIY flag is ready. For a little bit more budget there are a lot of options ranging from black reflectors to professional flags.

One of the main discussions I have with other photographers is the use of the lightmeter and I think for our readers on this blog it’s no secret that I’m a strong advocate for the use of the lightmeter, and working with a setup like this it’s more than important to do your measuring correct. If you don’t already own a light meter I advise you to buy one that supports spotmetering, my personal favorite is the Sekonic L758 this meter stores three different cameras if you like and all cameras can be calibrated on every ISO you use with options for dynamic range calculations. But to be clear I use the most simplest method where I only calibrated to have the spike of an 18% gray card renders in the middle of the histogram. For me this method works best and is very accurate.
Another option would be the Sekonic L358 with the 1 degree spotattachment, but when added up you can also buy the 758. The first thing you have to do is measure your model with the incident reading, aiming towards the ligthsource this will give you the value to set your camera to, let’s assume f8.0. Now to measure the background there are two options.


When you don’t own a spot meter you will have to measure the background incident.
You have to be 100% sure that the background is white paper or another white material.
Measure behind the head of the model (touching the background with your meter) and measure towards the head of the model when using two strobes on the background. The meter should read anything between f8.2 and f8.7 but preferable not higher. Best would be as low as possible towards f8.2. The reason behind this is very simple, when reading incident the meter gives you the value for which to set the camera if you want to light the background correctly. When we are using a white background and the meter would say f8.0 (which is the same as the main light) the background would be rendered white when shot on f8.0. However with this kind of shots this will not work perfectly because light falls off and there can be problems with the evenness of the background which would mean Photoshop work and I strongly believe that you should limit Photoshop work as much as possible. So by overexposing the background 1/3 stop or slightly more (8.3-8.7) we will counter those problems. Remember however that when overexposing the background the distance between model and background is vital. When overexposing let’s say 3/10th (1/3rd stop) the distance to the model can be between 2-3 mtr, when overexposing more you will have to move the model away from the background, or the hairs will start to blow out around the edges.

My preferred method is using a spot meter.
Sit on the location you are gone shoot from and aim along your lens towards the background and take a reading. When the main light measures f8.0 the background should read app 2.5-3.0 stops higher (f16.5-f22). Remember that the spot will give you the value for 18% gray. Meaning that if you want white you have to open up 2.5 stops. Adding a bit more will again guarantee that the background will blow out completely but not “infect” your model. The main advantage of using the spot meter method is that the color or brightness of the background is not important anymore, you can use any background (if you have enough power), this cannot be done with incident because incident only measures light falling on the background and not the reflected light from the background which is important for this method. The added advantage of this method is you can also measure the clothing (in this case the dark coat) and make sure that there still is detail. To hold detail the value on the spotmeter should NOT read below 4.3 stops below the mainlight.


Taking the shot to the final stage
After setting up which will not take you more than a minute or 5 with a good meter it’s important to get a good pose. And take the shot (duh). In photoshop your work will be very fast, because when you have measured everything correctly the shot will be almost perfect from the start. One final tip that will help by the way is to use a longer lens for this kind of shots, when shooting with a longer lens you will narrow your field of view making it more easy to blow out the complete background behind the model, when using a wide angle you will have to light more area behind the model and this makes it more difficult to get everything right at the time of taking the shot (but when you have enough room everything is possible).

The only photoshop work I did on this shot was adding some extra “crisp” with NIKs tonal contrast which I absolutely love. (visit our discount page at the gear guide for a nice discount on NIK software)

Feel free to ask questions and share this blog post.

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16 replies
  1. anthony byron
    anthony byron says:

    wow frank only a bit of tonal contrast from nik?
    its come up awesome ive been trying for similar look for a while and so awesome to know you can spend 30 seconds in PS to get it

    when metering the background 1 problem i have had is the fact that i am all speedlights so i have no continuous lights for background

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Should also work with speedlights, just put them on manual, and measure the same way.
      Now when lighting the background you could use the zoom function on your speedlights, go to the widest setting (for canon even use the diffusion panel) to make an even lighting on the background.

  2. Niels
    Niels says:

    Very nice picture!
    The tip about the meassuring behind the head is very usefull, thanks!

    Did you lower the layer opacity from the tonal contrast layer, or did you adjust the different highlists in the plugin overview?

    Thanks again,


  3. Kurt
    Kurt says:


    Als ik de L358 gebruik zonder de ” witte bol”, dan heb ik ook een reflectiemeting d8 ik.

    Kan ik op die mannier dan ook gewoen 2 1/3 a 2.5 stops over belichten?
    Dan moet ik de meetcelook op de achtergrond richten?

    Alvast bedankt


    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Well that IS the whole process so I really would not know how that could have been interesting 😀
      There is no further work on the image.
      The normal skinwork (filter in this case because it was shot during a workshop) and tonal contrast. Total PS time app 4-5 minutes.

  4. Arjan
    Arjan says:

    Past tonal contrast ook de skintoning aan? Want daar blijf ik namelijk mee worstelen. Met de toning van foto’s

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Kan zeer zeker, alleen moet je de huid wel heel goed bewerken voordat je hem uitvoert, anders is het teveel van het goede.
      En natuurlijk wat spelen met de laag.

  5. Louis Whittaker
    Louis Whittaker says:

    I’d just like to say after reading your blog for the past few months I dusted off my light meter, and started using it more than I have. And the quality of my shots have dramatically improved.  I bought the meter a few years ago, but when I started using speedlites instead of strobes I kind of went the histogram route. But now I use my meter all the time it comes in handy for shoots with a white backdrop, I’ve noticed my photographer friends who eye ball it always get their images blown out. Just like to say thanks for all the tips its greatly appreciated.

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