A guide to creating white backgrounds for product photography
Creating a plain white background for a product shot or e-commerce shoot sounds simple, and when you know how it is!
Whether you’re shooting packshot photography for an e-commerce website, want to do your own product photography in-house or are looking to refine your technique for commercial photography projects, I’m going to explain the important considerations and necessary equipment for creating white backgrounds and also outline three useful lighting setups to help you get pure white for every shot.
Before we get to the lighting setups, there are some very important factors to consider when creating white backgrounds for product photography.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, consider the product itself. For product photography, the purpose is to show the product as clearly as possible and highlight key features, so you’ll need to think about what angle best describes the product or even if white is the best choice of background at all!
As part of this, you need to think about your shooting angle, lens choice, and camera settings. These will vary from product to product, as you’ll see in any of our product photography classes.
The next thing to consider is the base surface or background you are going to use to get your white background. For my product work, I usually use a white wall as the background or white acrylic for the base surface. Depending on what I’m shooting and what result I want, I use either matte or gloss acrylic. Other backdrop options you could use include paper rolls, MDF sheets or wooden boards. I’ve got a whole article with more information on photography backdrops and how to make your own.
A third important factor to consider is your studio space. Even if you have a small studio, it is still possible to shoot good product photography on a white background. Working in a smaller studio just means you’ll have to carefully control your lighting and you may be limited to how many and what lights you can use.
Also keep in mind the distance between your subject and the background, and between your background and the light. Ideally, you want enough room between your subject and the background to place your light. Keep in mind that the closer the light is to the background, the smaller the spread of light will be.
Other factors to consider, which I explain in more detail in my ‘Creating clean white backgrounds’ class, include the distance from your light to the background, the power of your lights, the placement of your lights, the height, direction and angle, the possibility of flare, and how any additional lights you use to light the subject may affect your background.
For many of the images where I’ve photographed products on a white background, I’ve either one or two studio lights with modifiers and occasionally a window mask or flags to ensure that flare doesn’t become a problem.
The lighting modifiers I use to light the background depend largely on what I’m shooting and how much of the background I can see. If I’m working in a small space shooting a small object, I can sometimes get away with using just a single light with a reflector. If I’m working in a larger space I may need to use two lights with modifiers such as small octaboxes or wide-angle reflectors to help spread the light evenly over a wider area.
Flare is something that can occur when shooting on a white background because too much light can reflect off the white surface and bounce back into the lens. This results in the subject appearing washed out, lighter and lower contrast than it actually is, so having a window mask or polyboards on hand can be useful. Again, this is something you’ll see me do in the ‘Creating white backgrounds’ class. But generally speaking, good background techniques mean flare shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, flags and window masks are more to protect from flare coming in from lights that are striking the main subject such as backlighting.
If you don’t have studio lights it is possible to create white backgrounds using speedlites, it might just be a little bit more difficult and require further modification to get an even spread of light. This can be achieved with diffusion material in-front of the speedlite to enlarge the light source and disperse the direction of the light over a wider area.
Other equipment you’ll need is your camera of course, a suitable lens, a good tripod, and any additional lights for the main subject.
One of the other pieces of equipment that many people feel they need for photographing products on a white background is a light tent or light box. Although these offer a small and affordable ‘solution’, in my opinion, they’re nothing more than a gimmick. I could go into far more depth about why I feel this way, but quite simply, they just do not offer the level of control you need if you want to get good results on the main subject.
Rather than a light cube, if you’re photographing glossy or metallic items with reflective surfaces, I’d recommend watching our ‘Jewellery photography - Rings’ class to see how you can overcome this problem using my DIY solution.
Lighting setups for white backgrounds
You'll see several different lighting setups for white backgrounds in many of the product photography classes throughout our site, but I'm going to break down three of the most common options here.
If you’re working in a small studio with minimal lights, a single light may be enough. Providing you're photographing a fairly small product, one light on the background should be enough to create the clean white effect needed over the given area.
For this setup, which is demonstrated in my packshot product photography live show, you'd place the light out of sight behind the product to illuminate the background. I'd commonly use a reflector for this setup as it provides an even spread of light and can easily be diffused if you're working in a small space and need a larger more even area of light.
Because this setup is suitable for small studio spaces, it's a great option for those photographing e-commerce images for websites.
Another single-light setup for white backgrounds is to use the light itself as the background. With this setup, it’s important to consider the distance between the light and the product. If the light is too close, it will wrap around and illuminate the front of the product, which you don’t want because that would mean that the background light is influencing the key lighting on the subject.
One way to avoid ‘light pollution’ on the main subject, or to ensure you don’t incur flare, is to always make sure that your background lighting is actually slightly below pure white. This is easily achievable if you measure the background exposure using the RGB values. In each channel 255 is the maximum reading, but that doesn’t tell you if you are just at pure white or two stops over it, so I always prefer to arrive at a reading of around 253 or 254 and then add one-tenth of an f-stop at a time. Only then can I be sure I’m not going to induce flare.
These two different setups offer convenient one-light solutions, but more often than not I use two lights to get a white background for my commercial work, often because I have to create a bigger white background area. Using modifiers such as reflectors or small octaboxes, I place one light either side of the product to achieve an even spread of light on the background.
Light position and power become particularly important when using this setup if you want to achieve an even light, but it's a versatile setup that I often use for many different products.
You can choose to angle the lights at 45 degrees onto the background or keep them parallel to the wall depending on the fall-off in intensity of the modifiers from the centre and the distance they are from the white background.
A further options includes shooting your subjects on glass and lighting a white background below them. This can be particularly useful if the objects need to be fixed in a vertical position and you don't want any shadows.
Creating white backgrounds in Photoshop
Although creating a white background is generally fairly straightforward, there may be times when getting a pure white background isn’t completely achievable in camera. You might find that you have slightly darker edges of the frame, or one side of the image is slightly darker than the other.
In these cases, you can use Photoshop to achieve even tones throughout the image. Depending on how close you were able to get the image in-camera, post-production may involve simply painting white into the darker corners of the frame, or it could require more involved work like selecting and cutting out objects and totally replacing or removing the background. This is often very easy if you mostly isolated the object against a light background to begin with.
I also have a class on how to create white backgrounds in Photoshop for product images where I show you how to use simple Photoshop techniques to improve a product photo taken on a white background, which you can watch here. You’ll also find more advanced Photoshop classes on this same process for my Clinique style advertising shoot.
As you can see, creating white backgrounds doesn’t have to be difficult. At the very least you need a suitable background and one light. Understanding how to control your light and how to measure RGB values are useful skills to have for this type of product photography. This will give you far greater control than if you just use a light box, or light tent.
Understanding how to effectively create white backgrounds for product photography is a useful skill for any photographer to have. To learn more about how to do this and for further inspiration and ideas, take a look at a selection of recommended classes below or check out all our product photography classes.