Creating Clean White Backgrounds

A common question for many photographers is how to achieve clean white backgrounds. It sounds simple, yet so many struggle with getting the lighting correct. Instead, they end up with an overexposed image, or flare.

Here, Karl explains the equipment needed to achieve a clean white background and demonstrates, step-by-step, how to do this. He also explains how to tell whether the background is overexposed using RGB values.

In this class:

  • Common problems when trying to create clean white backgrounds
  • Lighting setup and necessary modifiers
  • Positioning your lights
  • Considerations when working in small spaces
  • Measuring white values
  • Reducing flare
  • Key points to consider when introducing a key light

Questions? Please post them in the comments section below.

Comments

  1. castlewolfpictures

    Karl, this is more about workflow rather than the specific technique: Let’s say you are setting up a shot for a client, you have the go-by’s they’ve sent with some specific criteria: model, outfit they want etc.. do you set up the shot first with an assistant or Stiffanie to determine whether or not you will need the black poly boards to flag the light or just have the actual model stand in the day of? To clarify I am asking whether or not you would try to be as prepared as possible to execute the shot before having the model in studio the day of the shoot? Obviously there are several determining factors here like your schedule and so on.. Or is it your years of experience that you have that allows you to not really worry about it until the day of the shoot? ow that I am on my own and not an assistant anymore I worry about time perhaps more than I should. Thanks for your time.

    1. Hi, in very complex advertising shoots where there are many permutations to the light or the objects being thrown or falling or a very very specific look is required then we do what is a called a test shoot, usually half a day and that is charged to the client at a reduced rate. What you are describing above for me wouldn’t require any testing as I’d already know what was needed or if I realised it needed to be different it would only take me 5-10mins to change it on the day, but that comes from experience. If you don’t have that level of experience or knowledge then of course there is nothing wrong with being well prepared and testing but I wouldn’t expect the client to pay for that part of testing as they may expect you to just know that. Having an assistant makes a huge difference though as you can use them as a stand in while the model is getting changed or make up etc. But you could also do that with a mannequin I guess.

  2. Hey all,

    I have a basic question about light.

    Karl has several times informed about how to get a clean white background, e.g. check the value of 255/255/255 et cetra.All good, technology tested and proven – much appreciated!

    My question is about the fact that you can get “whiter” background by increasing the exposure (up to just under 255 x 3 etc), can you please explain how brighter light/higher exposure gives “more white”. Is it a matter of shadows/black and the pure form of light in kelvin ~5400?

    Thank you all for a great education/service!

    1. Hi Jesper, my recommendation in all my videos is always to start just below 255. For example around about R253, G253 and B253 and then as you add more keylights etc and finalise your lighting you will often find you are at 255, 255, 255. If not then I would only make a slight increase 1/10th of an fstop to get the background up to it. I’ve never recommended going above 255 by any substantial amount as this will open you to the problems of flare and accidentally rim lighting the edges of your subject. There is no more white in a digital file than reaching 255, 255, 255 anything more just becomes detrimental to the rest of your image and main subject.

    2. I will refrase, my question is: how can a higher value on the flash/higer expo result in a whiter color? Let´s say that we have 220/220/220 in RGB at our background with a flash lighting up the background at level 6 (power 6), then we increase that number to 7 and we get to e g 240/240/240

      1. Hi Jesper because 220/220/220 is a form of pure grey which means it is a completely neutral grey (or in other words an underexposed pure white). 236, 236, 236, for example is 10% pure grey, it’s only when you get to 255, 255, 255 have you hit pure white (0% grey) Everything less than 255, 255, 255 but remains equal in the RGB values is a level of grey. 0,0,0 is black 10, 10, 10, will look black but in fact is an extremely dark grey. If any one of the numbers was above the other then it would actually be a colour and not grey.

  3. Following thru your comments – once you’ve got the model “properly” lit, would you test LR again to see what the final “white” registers as? If it’s still around 99% would/could you then raise the two back lights another 1/10th stop or so? Perhaps you’ve got a finicky client who demands 100%/255 white.

    1. Hi Michael, yes absolutely however for your information the measurements are on the RAW file and nearly all my images have a following batch contrast boost which will cause highlights that are 253 or 254 to tip into 255 very easily. For example a contrast curve at the highlight end moved just one point to the left will then take all of those very close values into 255, but yes of course you could also set your background lights up by 1/10th if the key lights hadn’t tipped it to white already.

  4. Hi Karl, I’m doing some lay flat photography shooting from above. Clothing is the subject and it’s obviously on the same plain as the background, no distance between subject and background, actually laying flat directly on the background. What’s the best way to achieve a pure white background?

      1. Watched both classes and they are superb as usual your thorough explanations and demonstrations are both inspiring and informative giving me the confidence to complete tasks and overcome problems especially the pure whit background in camera… Absolutely loved the shoot through glass showing how to eradicate the reflections along with the masking solutions again in camera, eliminating post process time which in the past has been a big time consuming issue…. Thanks Karl your knowledge and experience is very much appreciated. One quick question, is the glass any particular type ( ie safety glass etc ) and what thickness is best? Looking forward to more, thanks again, best wishes Trevor

        1. Thanks Trevor, this was 5 or 6mm safety glass. It has a slight green tinge but when you put the right exposure through it that doesn’t show up but if you can afford the clear view glass even better but definitely you want glass that is rated to take some weight.

  5. Hi Karl,

    Thanks for all the great videos!

    Would it be possible to achieve a pure white background using only one light with a soft box for example? I only have three lights, two of which I would use to lit the subject, shooting on a paper background in a rather small space. I mostly do portrait and fashion photography.

      1. Hi Karl,

        Thanks for the quick response.

        I’ve watched the video and while it is very informative, I am not too sure how to use those tips in my situation as I am working with flash lights and shooting full body length models on a white paper background. Would appreciate clarification, thanks! 🙂

        1. Hi Jezza, in your last question you asked how you could use one light with a softbox as white background. In this video ‘Dove Shampoo’ I use one light with a softbox as a white background?

          1. Hi Karl,

            I see what you understood. I’m sorry, I didn’t explain myself properly. I was asking if it were possible to use only one flash light to light a white background and obtain the same result you got in the video. My comment about the soft box was just my best guess as to how to achieve that. I hope my question makes sense now. Sorry again for the confusion.

  6. Hi Karl!
    amazing how you transmit everything, congratulations.
    Here goes my question… I am having problems with obtaining pure white background. Why in my readings of RGB, the R value is always much lower than the G and B, almost everywhere I pick with the eyedropper?
    Thank you very much!

  7. hello karl
    As always i just love to watch n note down all the details given by you well thanks for clear teaching dont feel like its a video still wish to see you face to face karl one day😌
    i have a questions
    1. what if i have props in the background how can i then get plain or pure white background ?
    2. if i need to shoot with model and i need full size (top to bottom)photo of her with some props in her hand ,then how do i achieve white bg without shadows ?
    3. many a times whenever i try to achieve white bg then colour of the clothes changes , mostly light colours changes , also white clothes or any clothes with white more in it blends , can you please guide what should i do to get same colours…
    4. i have only two light with me plus room is small , what more equipments i need to become better pls suggest *(godox 400k 2 light )
    is these light good or need to change

    thank you😊

    1. Hi,
      1. Yes but you need to have a greater distance to separate your white background from your props, you can’t have props against the white background unless you are willing to accept the shadows from the props on your background. Alternatively you can use a different lighting method for the background similar to this one – https://karltayloreducation.com/class/how-to-use-continuous-led-lighting-for-packshot-photography/
      2. This video should answer this one – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCErNYWS5CI
      3. The colours should not change at all as long as you’re white background is white and you are using neutral lighting and best to use a colour checker card – see these classes – https://karltayloreducation.com/class/how-to-use-a-colour-checker-card/
      https://karltayloreducation.com/class/photographing-white-products-white-background/
      4. I’m afraid you need 2 more lights at least to get good white backgrounds and to be able to light your subjects. The power of the lights you have is fine it’s just what you are trying to do can’t be done efficiently with just 2 lights.

      1. Thank you so much

        1 should i buy same 400k or other ones any suggestions on that…
        2 and also umbrella will be better as modifiers or any other ….

        1. Hi,
          1. buying the same 400J should be perfectly ok
          2. Softboxes are generally better for product/still life work but a good white reflective umbrella can still be useful.

          You will see in the classes I listed the type of modifiers I’m using.

  8. Hi Karl,

    So now you have achieved a clean white background by keeping the lights at a distance, where will you place your subject to be photographed? Same location where the dummy is? If so, will you use more lights to light up the subject and when you do so will it affect the background?

    And how to do this in a much tighter space?

    Thanks,
    Jyothi

    1. Hi, Jyothi yes in the same place but it would depend on what you are photographing for example the methods of creating a white background for product photography are different to people photography and there are also other methods for creating more evenly lit solid colour backgrounds. If you can explain what you want to do and the space you have to work then maybe I can offer some advice.

      1. I don’t have a specific use case for this right now, but I am trying to learn. I do come across situations where I feel like I want a nice clean background, but I was never able to achieve it. I am currently doing newborn photography in a 10ftX15ft space. I am not a pro photographer by any stretch, I am learning, I want to get there.

  9. karl does this apply for product photography as well? specially silver jewellery like necklaces with a lot of holes…

  10. Hello Karl,

    What an amazing course content. Am in love with each of the session(module).

    Quick question : what software do you use while doing photography?

    Is it capture one ? Or Lightroom ?

    I am using Sony A73 with ELINCHROM Master RX lights.

    Please advice.

    Thank you,
    Vivek from INDIA

    1. Hi Vivek, thank you for your comments. I’m using Phocus software by Hasselblad it’s very similar to Capture One.

  11. Hello Karl,

    Thanks for all your wonderful photography videos! In this video, I noticed you used poly boards to reduce the light bouncing back onto Stiffany’s face. Would increasing the shutter speed be an option to reduce the light spilling on her or this is not a good option as it would affect the white background as well?

  12. Loving the course Karl. been dipping into your stuff on YouTube for years and decided to take the leap into your Education Site. Incredible teaching skills. I salute you.

    My question concerning the above….
    After you moved the boards into place, you mentioned that the side facing the wall was white (and the side facing studio black to absorb reflected light from studio). So far, so good.
    What i was wondering was that the effect on your measured white level didn’t seem to increase after the shot. I was expecting that light would have been re-reflected from the white inner panels back to the wall and increased the level. Is it because of the falloff being so dramatic due to the distance between the boards and the wall – or is it because that light reflected wasn’t going to be a huge issue?

    Just trying to understand better what actual effect the boards had on the luminosity because of the white-side facing the background wall.

    Cheers!

    1. Hi, thank you for joining us, you will be very interested in this class which among other things also shows you how to create the most perfectly evenly lit backgrounds especially where necessary such as plain colours. In this class I put the polyboards in to reduce flare at around 11mins into this video, this wasn’t to increase light on the background? I’m not sure at which point in the video you are referring to, if you could note that time in the video and I’ll take a look?

      1. Thanks for the replay.

        After the 1/2 stop drop in light power (to take you down from potentially blowing out 100%+ white) confirmed during your check at 3:51 on the clip, you then move the boards into place – white side in at approx 11:00. (as you say -blocking light reflecting from the room but ‘keeping more light bouncing around’ between the wall and the polyboard white surface now facing it)

        After this you took your ‘final’ shots. I was expecting to see the white background increase significantly in percentage value- but as you showed – it only increased about 2%. That surprised me. I was anticipating you would need to drop power on the lights again to reign in the white levels.

        So my question is , was that only tiny increase due to the distance between the boards and the wall – or was it largely the physics of reciprocal falloff to thank for keeping you below 100% white?

        1. Hi Graham, yes as the lights were pointing at the wall and the distance of the boards from the wall the increase in exposure was very minimal. I would have expected it to be a bit more having recapped on the video. Also sorry in my earlier comment I didn’t provide the link to the class I meant – https://karltayloreducation.com/class/live-photography-workshop-creative-portrait-lighting-2-0/ As you say it inverse square law fall off would have been a large part of it with the lights facing at the wall and their distance relative to the boards. Obviously what we filmed is what happened and as the photographer you can only work with the physical results of what you see and measure as long as no other paramaters have changed and undertaking one change at a time then the results should be accurate.

          1. Thanks. I understand better now. This has all been immensely helpful to me.
            To use an analogy – sometimes you have to play the cards as they fall – even if there are a few ‘jokers’.

            The physics of light has long eluded me, and too often that lack of understanding on my part has led to a lot of ‘spray and pray’ – with the inevitable poor results. But after working through your ‘understanding light’ syllabus and trying some tests during lockdown – I’m now hopelessly obsessed by it.

            So nice and thoughtful of you to take the time to reply in person – even over the weekend. I realise how busy this superb level of client service must keep you – but as I see on your courses and in your work, ‘go the extra mile’ is obviously forged into your mindset. Just know that it’s very much appreciated. Have a great weekend.

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