Time to be with your loved ones

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Short Version

Digital backdrops (chroma color with backdrop added in post production) are being pushed on photographers more and more these days. While it's obvious the flexibility that this provides (hundreds of backdrops for the price of one good muslin), does this actually end up saving the photographer money in the long run?

Long Version

I run a simple portable studio for when a client insists on studio over on-location: 3 flashes, pile of modifiers, and 2 canvases, white and black. Setup takes about 10 minutes and switching backdrops takes another 5. Post production on the backdrop itself isn't a factor.

As small studios grow, they grow their collection of backdrops. Traditionally, it has been a collection of muslin backdrops. It seems though that small studios do fine with 2-4 colored and textured muslin backdrops. This would cost me anywhere from $150-$1000, but no ongoing post production investment.

The digital solution however, is only an upfront cost of $30 for about 50 backdrops (BH) and $30-$200 for green canvas. Even with high quality green screen muslin, it is still cheaper than a handful of real muslin canvases. There is however, on ongoing cost with this process: post production time.

Having no experience in digital backdrops, I don't know if there any fluid workflows available with the LR/PS combo that allow you do quickly add in a background. It seems that even at a fairly rapid pace of 2-3 minutes per keeper, a 1 hour session, yielding anywhere from 10-20 keepers, will cost an extra hour of post just with backgrounds alone. Besides the time investment, there may be other variables that I'm not including (lighting investments, increased risk of reshoots, etc).

Question

Overall, is it practical for a small shop to grow into a digital backdrop workflow, or is this a luxury with a higher cost compared to traditional muslin?

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Great question! I've done quite a few chromakey images in the past, so I think you'd be lucky to get it to two or three minutes a shot... Then there's the issues of hair, clothing, and more. Anyways, I don't shoot professionally, so I can't comment on costs. –  John Cavan Jun 27 '12 at 1:22
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If you're shooting on location I imagine green screening could be a nightmare as if you're tight on space you wont be able to get the backdrop far enough away to prevent green light spilling all over your subject! –  Matt Grum Jun 27 '12 at 9:15
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Chromakeying is certainly convenient for a lot of things, but it's also a nightmare with blond hair, light fur (animals or clothes) and anything translucent (thin fabrics, etc). Anything that allows light from the backdrop to pass but alter the hue will force you to either lower your sensitivity threshold ( introducing rougher edges) or leave a nasty green tint to what's supposed to be, for example, a thin white fabric. –  Tzarium Jun 27 '12 at 11:12
    
@Tzarium The "refine edge" introduced in CS5 seems to have taken care of color bleeding, thin hair, etc. I tried this with non-chromakey edits and it works wonders. Is what you say still an issue with refine edge? tv.adobe.com/watch/visual-design-cs5/… –  AndyML Jun 27 '12 at 15:01
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I personally find that chroma color backdrops work better on videos, where your eye doesn't have as much time to notice the inferiority of the quality. I would not use a shop that had digital backdrops, way to cheesy for me. –  Xeoncross Jun 28 '12 at 15:39
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

You're probably as tired of hearing this answer as everyone else is: it depends.

"Cost-effective" can mean an awful lot of things. As you've stated it, it's all about the post-processing — but is it really? If you're working at the lower end of the market, your dollar is coming primarily from getting faces in front of the camera. Turn-around matters, but not mearly as much as getting people into the studio if the image turn-around is reasonable. Frankly, a lot of that market isn't about getting that one perfect image, it's about catching people on a whim before they change their minds. Does anyone really need to be on the cover of an ersatz outdoor life magazine or a baseball card? Probably not, but if you can get them to buy into stardom in addition to the ordinary portrait session, you're ahead of the game. What happens when the client decides later that the background doesn't go with her blouse? You've got the session fee, but you've lost the prints (or whatever your final product is). A proofing site that allows background swaps before print orders can do a lot of this sort of marketing for you. And are you missing out if you can't offer the fun impulse picture?

At the very high end, the post-processing is going to be extensive in any case. This isn't the stratum where a couple of clicks in Portraiture or Image Doctor will get you where you want to go — a beauty shot, whether for advertising or editorial, can often be a full day's work in post. I don't know if chromakey is where you want to be here (colour bleeds and specular reflections can be tricky sometimes) but masking and compositing can certainly come into play. (I like to point to the work of Joel Grimes, among others, at this level.) Here, you may be putting the subject very much into an environmental context, but with the full benefit of studio lighting for the subject and the best possible composition and exposure for the environment. Even in a context-free setting (seamless, for instance), you get to play with the colour, tonality and gradient afterwards, and an easily-masked white, back, or neutral backdrop can give you (and an art director, if one happens to be involved) a lot of options.

It's that bit in the middle-to-high end, where the client is paying a premium for a good studio portrait (or headshot) that is supposed to look exactly like what it is where there's not much real gain. Your subjects are going to want the "studio look", whether that means a mottled backdrop (bleh!), an obviously fake scenic (again, bleh!), a neutral gradient, or what have you. You can easily get away with a couple of backdrops and a couple of go-to lighting recipes.

Don't forget the "nuclear option", though — if you're working at near-capacity, and post-processing turn-around after image selection is getting to be a problem, then there's a pretty good chance that you're wasting your valuable time. It may be time to hire or outsource so that you can stay in the studio and make the "big bucks" while someone else sweats the small stuff. Time in the studio is making money; time in post is spending it. If you're charging, say, $100/hr for your time in studio (that's nowhere near the high end) and can book an extra five or six hours a week by handing off post, that's a 20 hr/week employee paid for. The more you can gain in shooting by offloading processing (and, obviously, the more you charge in session fees) the better that gets, and the extra couple of minutes per image doesn't mean nearly as much when it's costing you so much less. (And keep in mind that at the client proofing/ordering level, the work doesn't have to be immaculate — just good enough for the web page or contact sheet. The heavy lifting can happen once the order is placed.)

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I have been an exploring the option in the use of digital Backdrops. More so for practicality. I think if it does the trick to a point. How ever" I am not convinced it is good enough. I have tried it out using a Software masking a Backdrop. It took a lot of time in post production versus practicality to make it happen. Thought the outcome was not bad and acceptable I am not convinced to make this a replacement for a real Backdrop. Hairs, fine fluffy bits and trying to separate colours that are equal to the backdrop area problem.

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