On white background and black background in portrait photography

The trouble with portraits, headshots, and such like is that you need a willing subjects who are happy to spend their time on helping you out. Working with an experienced model would be even better. But short of that you can still learn a lot from your own selfies. Recently I had a go at two simple methods, the white room and the black wall.

The white room soft light method:

  • Conjecture: A white background, like a cyclorama, should be simple to illuminate, produce clean photos with nothing but the subject, and enable super easy background separation in post.
  • Setup: A medium size room with white walls. One flash on the ground behind the subject set at full power washing the white wall. One flash on the side, bouncing against another white wall, to produce a standard side window asymmetry look. Exposure set to Aperture. Lens, 85mm f5.6 or whatever works.
  • Results: A mixed bag, kinda good. What they say about lens flares is all true -- if you point a high intensity light source at a lens, at any angle, it will flare and generally cause trouble. Here in this experiment the entire background becomes a relatively intense light source, with the flare manifesting at the center, as a discoloration of the black outfit with a hint of blue. In this case the flare is fixable, but it could be a disaster if the subject was a high fashion client demanding color accuracy.
  • Conclusion: This method is quite fun and kinda usable. However, don't assume that just because you saturate your sensor around the subject, you automatically get background separation, because real results are not so convenient.

The black wall hard light method:

  • Conjecture: Quite a while ago I formed a hunch that a subject needs to be shot with a background and lighting that corresponds to the intended scene for post. For example, if the subject will be cut out and put on white paper with some writing on it then it then should be shot against a white background so that the boundary edge has a good amount of white bleeding into it, and the final result looks natural. I often see laughable results on cheap or rushed ads, where the subject is in sharp focus at the front, naturally blends out of focus towards the back but then magically jumps into razor sharp focus where it meets the background, and there is no reflective interaction between the background and the subject like you would expect to see in real life (angle of incidence and angle of reflection grade school stuff). Shoot with black for dark artwork, shoot with white for light artwork.
  • Setup: Black fabric background, unlit, don't worry if you still see creases because you're not keeping any of it in post. You could shoot it in the dark in a very large space, if you happen to have one available, but there is no need for in-camera perfection with digital so don't waste your time. Play with symmetrical key lights. I used two speedlites, set to full zoom and low power, to limit light spilling onto the background (sometimes we all wish for an kit of large one degree honeycomb modifiers, but just work with what you've got). No soft fill, as it would spill way too much all over this highly controlled scene. Snooted honeycomb front fill. Also there was a backlight, hoping to produce some edges, but I'm not convinced that it had any effect.
  • Results: Regardless of my initial conjecture, the output turned out to be basically universally usable.
  • Conclusion: Use with caution. Deep Etching your selfie takes time, and can end up funny-lookin if you're not careful.

1) original, 2) etched, 3) gradients for background and asymmetry, 4+5) a hint of creative drama