Creating a White Background with Speedlights

Using your small camera flash for professional results is entirely possible and a fantastic option for those who travel a lot or want quick setup/teardown times. Today’s modern flash units give out a lot of power and they are easily adapted to working with a professional setups. This is a small strobe setup idea for creating a clean, white background.

I posted this on a forum to help a photographer get clean whites. I know it is a look we all love. What I notice is that so many people think that because the background is in the back, the light should be there as well. The problem is that the closer you place the light, the narrower the throw… so if you move the light farther from the back, you get a wider – more even – light.

One of the most important things for a shot like this is room. Getting the model separated from the background is so important. You need the space to get the light even on the background. Speedlights can sometimes throw a beam that is too narrow and that can create a hot spot. One thing you can do is to make sure the ‘Zoom’ on the flash is on a wide angle setting instead of a telephoto setting. That will spread the light over a wider area, but it also may lessen the overall total light that can be achieved with the strobe.

Creating a White Background with Speedlights

To create the clean, white background without having it flare back on the edges of the skin or blowing out the fine hair, you must keep it no more than 1 stop brighter than the main exposure.

The perfect exposure of white is white. I sometimes read where people refer to “blowing out” the background. To me that refers to having some flare and such and that is definitely not the look we are going for here. What we are wanting is a clean white background that is even. For me that means no more than one stop over the main, and I actually prefer a half stop. When the light is too bright the flare that starts to wrap around the edges of the skin is called ‘bleed’.

I recommend that you meter the background to get the exposure that is within your speedlights ability. So let’s say your speedlight can give a nice wide throw of even light at f8. To get it wide enough it may be very close to the model. That’s ok, as long as it is out of the shot.

Now we simply have to get the light on the subject to be one stop less. Bringing in a speedlight for f5.6 shouldn’t be a problem even in an umbrella. Setting the camera for the correct exposure of the subject, in this case, f5.6 will give you a very nice white background.

See the diagram below. It helps to have a flash meter, but I suppose you could come reasonably close with ‘chimpin’ it out. I prefer close tolerances and perfect exposures. If the back light is too hot, it bleeds back on the edges, not bright enough and it goes gray. I prefer 1/2 – 1 stop lighter than the main light. I only want bleed when it is to be used for effect.
Creating a White Background with Speedlights: Diagram

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I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and learned how to create a clean white background that will require very little Photoshop work. Both of the shots above are as they came from camera. While there may be a little Photoshop on them, there was none to clean up the backgrounds.

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