Solving the Background Challenge with Collapsibles

Backgrounds can be a real challenge for a photographer or videographer.  If we are shooting in ambient light, what is there may not be optimal.  A busy background detracts from the primary subject, or there may be elements that just don’t fit, and while you can use content aware fill in Photoshop to remove these things, we do not yet have that capability in video editing that is easy to do.  In this article, I want to explore some options.

The Need for Not Boring AND Not Difficult

When working indoors, we often spend a lot of time doing location scouting because the right location can help us create mood and story framework and we get tired pretty quickly of white, black, grey or some other roll paper colour.  Muslins and canvases can be more flexible, but are a pain to transport, and muslins particularly come to us from the wrinkle dimension where irons and steamers are constantly fighting a losing battle.

The desired outcome of interestingly patterned, yet highly portable backgrounds led to the making of image printed rolls and pop-up backgrounds.  Sadly most image printed rolls, look like what they are, fake interpretations of something real.  While short rolls are not a really big problem to transport, if you need more width, than 53” you might be in trouble.  Pop-ups come typically either 60” or 72” wide and while they offer more width, too often have the same fakerific look of roll papers.

 A superb general go-to collapsible, white one side, black the other.  This 6' x 7' unit is from Lastolite

A superb general go-to collapsible, white one side, black the other.  This 6' x 7' unit is from Lastolite

Consider a Collapsible Background

A collapsible background has the primary advantage of space management.  A 5’x7’ or 6’x8’ pop up collapses into a disk about 24” in diameter.  They unfold easily and mostly fold up easily as well.  The white/black variants tend to be of thicker materials and are less problematic when there are lights behind the background.  Pattern printed backdrops seem to use a lighter material and you must completely control the light behind the background if you do not want the light to shine through and cast colour and pattern on the back and fringes of your subject.  

Managing lighting ratios is not a problem for the focused photographer.  Once you have the lighting nailed you now focus on creating the story that you want.  Some of the imaged popups look lousy to the eye, but work quite well in front of the camera when properly lit, or not lit as is required.  Some have shadows painted in, which is all well and good, unless your lighting puts shadows in a different place.   These imaged backgrounds try to represent three dimensional space, but are very two dimensional in practice and have no surface texture to create a semblance of reality.

Collapsible Considerations

When looking at a collapsible background, the most critical construction piece is the reliability of the steel hoop.  It must be sufficiently flexible to collapse and expand many times without breaking, and the welds, pins or rivets must hold up.  Popular brands include Savage and Lastolite.  I find that some the Savage backdrops are often too translucent but later ones are backed with a solid colour.  For a while there, the hoop quality from Lastolite went right down the tubes with broken hoops turning into sharp piercing points becoming the norm rather than the exception.  Recent testing suggests that the company has gotten its ducks back in line, but be sure that you exercise the hoop a lot within your product return period.

 Have that aged brick wall wherever you need it.  This is one of the new Savage units with the heavier backing

Have that aged brick wall wherever you need it.  This is one of the new Savage units with the heavier backing

Usability

These backdrops are particularly useful if you are doing in-home shots for headshots and the like, or if you are doing your own Vlog, and don’t have a nice background, or don’t want to show the world your home.  They set up faster than any alternative and also tear down very very fast.  

 Manfrotto Justin clamp, always handy to have these around

Manfrotto Justin clamp, always handy to have these around

You will need a stand, specialized units have a collapsible background clip, but I have found that a general purpose light stand with just a mini Justin clamp will do the job as well if not better.  

I particularly like the Lastolite magnetic bar system as the magnets grab the hoop and it is very secure.  This system uses a standard ⅝” socket so it works with any standard stud or baby pin.  The only challenge with the magnetic bar is positioning the hoop properly.

 Lastolite Magnetic Bar for Collapsible Backgrounds

Lastolite Magnetic Bar for Collapsible Backgrounds

The patterns that we can find vary enormously from grunge concrete, to cinder block, to old brick wall, to old stone wall, to rusty siding, to barnboard and myriad options.  Coloration tends to be neutral, if not a bit over-saturated at times, and reflectance is minimized to avoid spill onto the subject.  You can also get solid colours, including white, black, neutral grey, chroma green and chroma blue.  

 Savage Two Sided Chroma Key Background Kit

Savage Two Sided Chroma Key Background Kit

Chroma Key Collapsible Backgrounds

I never recommend a chroma background for stills, but they can be awesome for video.  Video applications that do keying, have key management tools to handle spill and fringing, where photographic masking tools require extensive work when cutting a mask to remove the spill and fringing effects. I know that there are “packages” that you can buy including a green screen and “green screen” software, but I have yet to find one that actually does the job acceptably for stills.

Any of the decent video editors include very good keying tools, and you can always get very advanced dedicated keyers if you wish.  I find that the included keyers work well most of the time, so long as you do a good job lighting the background, do not have the background colours in your subject, limit the use of reflective surfaces in your subject, and keep the subject a decent distance off the background. 

For many creatives, where time to deliver is sensitive, keying requires more work and more time than is available, and while a properly keyed image can look more “real” on a placed background, doing this work may not be viable.  This is why we are seeing more and more of these imaged backgrounds.

 This two sided colour and monochrome backdrop measures 5' x 7' and is in Lastolite's Joe McNally lineup.  A backdrop that can be used horizontally or vertically offers more flexibility.

This two sided colour and monochrome backdrop measures 5' x 7' and is in Lastolite's Joe McNally lineup.  A backdrop that can be used horizontally or vertically offers more flexibility.

Making Choices

I find the plain backdrops are really easy to use, as are the ones with no aligned pattern.  The more random the pattern, the less likely that the viewer is going to spend time trying to resolve a pattern.  The patterned units, particularly those with horizontal or vertical lines are considerably less usable because the frame stretches the fabric producing bowed and pincushioned lines.  This makes for too much work in post production to fix and it may be quicker to green screen.  I messed around for over two hours with one sample to get a "brick wall" version to hang properly in the studio, and I still had to crop in from all the edges to avoid lines getting bent.  If discernible patterns are what you are looking for, you may find yourself in a better position if you go with a more traditional heavyweight construction.

 This Savage Earthtone collapsible has a nice warm feel and is good for portraiture with a natural feel

This Savage Earthtone collapsible has a nice warm feel and is good for portraiture with a natural feel

I've done more evaluations than I might like of popups.  I've got a reversible black/white unit from Lastolite that is really super but can be a challenge to refold.  I have a new brick wall popup from Lastolite that looks good when thrown a bit out of focus and where I can crop the edges to fix any odd stretches.  I have used a couple of different more random patterns from both Savage and Lastolite and as long as I use something opaque behind them they work well, but even a window on a wall behind them is going to push light through and make them less useful.

I mentioned the reliability of the hoop mechanism earlier.  This is as important as the material itself, perhaps moreso.  The hoop must be able to be expanded and folded without breaking.  And it needs to be able to do this hundreds of times.  You are better served to spend more money and get a tougher hoop than to focus solely on the pattern.  Interestingly in many cases, a heavier duty hoop actually folds up easier than a cheap one although this sounds crazy.

In Closing

Have an idea for an article or tutorial?  Do you have a photo or video question unrelated to this article?  Send me an email directly at ross@thephotovideoguy.ca or post in the comments.

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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, watching and listening and until next time, peace.