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I'm considering getting backdrop for a small home portrait studio. Leaving out the issues of cloth vs. paper, I'd like to know how the different cloth options compare. There's muslin, velour (velour!), and canvas, and various natural and synthetic materials — cotton, polyester, hemp....

I assume these materials have advantages and disadvantages, but it's all confusing to me. I'm looking for something very plain to be pure black and pure white, but I'd like to understand the differences, adventages, and disadvantages of these materials in general.

What materials:

  • store best,
  • require least maintenance,
  • come in the deepest blacks,
  • and in the most-pure whites,
  • resist wrinkles,
  • resist dirt,
  • clean easiest,
  • weigh least,
  • last longest,
  • have the most-even, least distracting texture?
  • and, of course, cost least?

How else do these cloth options differ? What other considerations are there?

Where must one make tradeoffs between features (weight and durability, say), and what things can one get together if one pays enough?

Does one generally get the same thing from different brands at the same price point, or is it important to shop around and look closely at the details?


I saw this general question, but I'd like to focus on the more specific here. I'll worry about size and setup separately.

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I have been looking for similar fabric to use as background in my portable studio. Actually I am contemplating to buy white polyester because it's wrinkle free! The yard can be expensive, around $12.00 dollars each yard. But seems like less maintance. –  user24134 Nov 9 '13 at 18:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

You might want to keep in mind that I've been out of the pro game for a while, and that I tend to shoot people "in the wild" these days, so I'm not entirely up to date on the latest offerings. I was really hoping to see some other input here from people who have more recent experience in a professional studio environment, but here goes:

Canvas

Canvas is extremely durable, but it's not particularly portable or storable. As a painted fabric, it's well-suited for surface cleaning (wiping with a cloth or sponge); as a dyed fabric you need to allow for light colours to become somewhat dingier over time and for darks to fade -- dry cleaning, as opposed to laundering, helps, as does dark storage in a sealed bag. White isn't very white unless the canvas is painted (bleaching only gets you so far), so you need space to light the background separately if you want anything that's apparently white. (We'll take it as read that if you want "digitally white", you need to overexpose any background.)

Canvas can be fairly heavy; even the lighter grades of cotton duck sold as "canvas" are in the 10-12oz. region and painted finishes add considerably to that, so you need a sturdy support (not necessarily a certified and approved official background stand set, but a couple of thumbtacks aren't going to do it). It takes and shows wrinkles and creases, although they will relax into near invisibility over time if the canvas is dyed and unsized (and can be ironed out). Painted canvas really needs to be treated like roll paper; the binder in the paint (even if there is no visible paint film) makes creases and wrinkles very prominent. It's great stuff for swappable scenics or a durable seamless, but they really need to be kept either hung or rolled (and may take days of hanging to become usable if they were folded, even around a form, when you purchased them).

Synthetics may have changed the game a bit since I last looked; I can imagine that something other than dropcloth-grade cotton duck (which was the base fabric for all of the lighter canvasses I've worked with) might be somewhat better-behaved, but I haven't seen any evidence of them in my local pro photo emporia.

Muslin

I don't know what the kids are doing with muslin these days, but in my day it was the location alternative to mottled canvas backdrops. Not only is muslin much lighter and slightly cheaper, it takes wrinkles better. Yep, that was the point. Getting canvas to a location meant either bringing an unwieldy long roll of fabric with you, folding it neatly and having a regular pattern of creases (which look like a bad web page background image), or having a very prominent spider web of irregular creases. Canvas is a heavy fabric; it only scrunches up so much. Muslin, on the other hand, is very lightweight and glories in the ability to take an almost fractal irregular creased texture if you just sort of scrunch it up and stuff it into a bag. When that texture is combined with the soft mottling that's usually applied, it just sort of disappears. If you want a plain background, then you need to treat muslin with almost the same care as canvas.

Muslins do tend to be made from a higher grade of thread than canvasses (the source looms and threads are used for things like bed linens rather than industrial applications and grounds for painting on when they're not doing their twenty minutes a year of photographic applications). That means that the results of bleaching and dying tend to be better -- you can get a good white and intense, bright colours without painting, as well as darks with no sheen. But wrinkling and creases are always going to be a problem if you need to store or move them.

Jersey (Knits)

Jerseys tend to get around the wrinkling and creaing problem very neatly, and because of that they make great solid-colour backgrounds. Being fabrics, of course they are going to wrinkle and crease, but those wrinkles and creases can be stretched out easily. But like the man said, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Jersey's don't just hang there; they pretty much need to be stretched. If you put a plain jersey background panel on a standard background stand, the top may be the advertised width, but it's going to taper down to this little six-inch wide cylinder at the bottom. You need to clamp the fabric to the uprights in oder to maintain width, and the clamps need to be frequent enough to avoid creating a visible diamond pattern due to variations in the tension. And it's pretty much a background-only material; it doesn't do well as a seamless, even if you try to stretch and weight the perimeter of the piece on the floor/table. (The stretchiness means that there's almost always a bubble popping up somewhere.) It makes a fantastic pop-up, though, and it works great on a frame -- wrinkles just vanish.

And there's the pilling problem. If you never need to clean the fabric, it can stay looking new for a very long time. If you do need to wash it, you need to remember that you're dealing with something that's really just an oversized tee shirt. Washing it by hand in cold water in the bathtub by squeezing (no agitation) and hanging to dry works well, but anything rougher than that will pretty much ruin it. If it's something that going to experience a lot of rough-and-tumble, it's the wrong fabric.

Velour/Velvet

These make great solid colours (assuming we're not talking about the "crushed" variety) and there is no substitute for black velvet as an absolute black apart from immense distance -- light goes in and it doesn't come back out. The nap hides wrinkles and creases in the base fabric very well. For lighter/brighter colours, you may need to brush the surface of the nap in order to avoid apparent colour changes (one of those large blackboard erasers that's essentially a foam rubber block with a stick inside of it and a chamois glued over one face is very quick and effective for this). Velvet/velour is great for solid whites, solid absolute blacks, and for chromakey-type colours, and a white or grey panel combined with gelled lighting can make for very smooth gradients. Velvets can be surprisingly light (although some, made as coating fabrics -- that is, fabric suitable in weight to be used for coats -- and those based on a jersey knit rather than a weave, can be surprisingly heavy).

Velvets and velours, though, are lint magnets, and the lighter colours can pick up handling grime quickly. They are absolutely not suitable for seamless applications where anything heavy (like a person or even a large tabletop subject) is involved -- raising the nap again after it has been thoroughly crushed is a bear of a job.

There's a huge range of washability -- the name really only tells you what the surface of the fabric looks like; it doesn't tell you much about the underlying construction. Some will go bald if you look at them funny, some will felt, others will laugh at your "hot" water and puny washing machines. Some will dry quickly and easily, others will absorb Lake Superior in a single gulp and be ready to use again next February if you're lucky. It's probably safe to assume that any company that depends on the goodwill of professional photographers (Lastolite, Photek, Photoflex, Westcott, and so forth) will sell you something suitable for the purpose; but as with anything else in life, I'd be wary of anything priced at the "too good to be true" level -- it may work well out of the box, but it's probably disposable.

Really, Truly White

If you are working an a small space (no real room for separately lighting the background evenly from the front) and need something that's digitally white rather than merely apparently white (that is, something that doesn't merely look white to the viewer, and can have shadows, but that will actually be all Fs when you look at the values), then it may be worth looking at backlighting. Commercially, that means using an enormous softbox or something like Lastolite's Hilite background system (which is essentially a shallow sidelit softbox). A DIY version wouldn't be too difficult to create -- the only piece that's critical is the diffusion panel, and that's really only "critical" in the sense that it needs to be seamless (one piece). The rest is just reflective fabric (that can be the cheapest silver lamé you can find at the fabric store, and can be full of seams everywhere) and a frame to hang it on (PVC, anyone?).

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1  
Thanks Stan. This is very helpful. –  mattdm Jan 8 '12 at 3:33
    
Thanks from me too Stan, my answer was entirely from the non-Pro perspective, so very, very basic. :) –  John Cavan Jan 8 '12 at 14:34
    
Ah, Stan, you are truly the man. I had never even heard of jerseys! Many thanks. –  AJ Finch Jan 12 '12 at 10:25
    
As usual, fantastic answer! –  JoséNunoFerreira Apr 23 '12 at 12:49

Of the "big two" for photography, muslin is often desirable for transport and storage because you can fold it up nice and easy, toss it in a bag, and it's lighter in weight. It's also less expensive, a prime consideration for the more frugal shooter. On the other hand it wrinkles, but that's also a positive for texture purposes, and it's also easily smoothed out if you need.

Canvas will last a very long time (if properly cared for) as it is very durable, and it offers some better options around painting them (for scenics). On the down side, it's harder to store (stored rolled up), weighs more, and you have to be cautious of creating a permanent crease, dent, etc in it. On the other hand, they don't wrinkle and you can sponge them off to clean them.

In terms of the others, I haven't really seen these in photography shops, though I've used a few via the fabric shop option at home. For the most part, other than having a hard time finding a useful width, I can't say that they're especially different than the muslin option. The only caveat to that is weight, which in this case is the weight of the weave, you may find that it is thinner and it could lead to light coming in from the rear. That may also be useful too, depends on the desired effect. As for velour, I'd be cautious on how reflective it might be as it is usually kind of glossy, but that might be part of the desired look as well.

Anyways, that probably sums up my experience...

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For black and white, I use paper from Savage. It comes in rolls and you can hang it on a background stand (anything high with a crossbar or shower-curtain bar. The key, as one of the other posters said, is lighting.

For white, you need the background to be a stop to 1.5 stops brighter than the subject. So get some background lights.

For black, just the opposite. You need the background to be a stop or two darker than the subject.

You also should get some separation between your subject and background. When shooting white, this decreases the amount of light reflected back from your background to the subject, causing milky edges. For black, it makes it easy to get pure black because your light diminishes by inverse squares and separation is the only way it will really be black.

With all that said, a white background card, paper, or cloth will reflect white more efficiently than a different color and a black one will absorb better. There are certain cloth types that are better than others for this. Diamond Cloth seems to work very well. Velour is an old standby for soaking up almost all light -- it's the black hole of background material.

Good luck and remember, the secret is in lighting your set properly.

EDIT: You will find an absorbent cloth such as velour/velvet better for black backgrounds and a pure white cloth such as the aforementioned Diamond Cloth better for white. I will editorialize a bit here: You didn't say what you are shooting so... For white, I use the Last-o-Lite box for relatively tall subjects (people if I don't need their feet in frame, larger product) and a plexi shooting table for small product and still life. These leave me less post-processing work than a cloth backdrop, although I have white Diamond Cloth for full-length white when paper is not an option. I use Diamond Cloth when shooting on black, but have had good success with black paper. Both rely on proper lighting.

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I've only ever used plain walls, so can't comment on various cloths, other than mulsin seems to be the material of choice.

But you said you want pure white and pure black. You can achieve pure black by flagging or feathering your lights and having your subject some distance from the background.

You can achieve white with enough light on your background.

Dirt, texture and wrinkles/folds aren't going to show if your background is black, or blown white.

In fact, here is a video where a mid-tone grey backdrop is used, and the lighting is changed to produce both a pure white and a pure black background.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDGn4VzEOlU

This doesn't really answer your question directly, but if you are after only pure white/black backgrounds, you may just want to go for a low cost material and not worry so much about texture and wrinkles and so forth.

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