While I agree that a great photographer can create incredible images using basic tools, it is no secret that great tools can help a good photographer achieve greatness. Over the last year or two, new strobes, new lenses, and a plethora of modifiers have helped elevate my studio photography to new levels, but one tool has brought it to a new level more than anything else: painted backdrops. And so, I wanted to share some resources on how to get painted backdrops without putting a second mortgage on your house.
I'll start by saying I love seamless paper in my work. Cleaning and reorganizing my studio, I found that I have over 25 nine-foot rolls of seamless paper in a large variety of colors that help me create different looks and styles with my work. But when I want to add a different element to my work, I love using painted backdrops to help create an added dimension, and over the last few years, I've found some great studio pieces from a couple of different sources.
Why Painted Backdrops Are Better
Hand-painted backdrops can easily take criticism from those who are trying to save a few dollars. Sure, a backdrop can be digitally made; a gray roll of seamless can take a texture overlay in Photoshop and give believable results. But the difference is pretty vast in dimensionality. There is no way to truly and accurately explain the depth you get from a well-made painted backdrop. But like how a veteran photographer can tell if their client is a smoker by simply taking a photo of them using studio lights, hand-painted backdrops work in essentially the same way, and it comes from the underlying layers. In short, there is a reason why custom backdrop makers explain how many layers of paint they often use in their work, and it's not just marketing jumbo.
Before putting this list together, I'll start by saying I'm not sponsored or getting paid by any of these backdrop companies. I really love their products and felt that they needed additional attention to their work. Secondly, I'll fundamentally disagree that you can get the same effect by adding the texture and tones in post-production. Lighting backdrops painted using multiple layers of various paint tones gives a specular depth to the images that isn't easily described in a series of verbs. Let's go through the list and share four painted backdrop options that won't break the bank.
Fine Art Backdrops
The first on this list is certainly one that I have the most experience with. Run by Ashley and Joshua Simmons in Minnesota, Fine Art Backdrops has built quite a positive reputation among portrait photographers over the last few years. Using locally sourced canvases, Fine Art Backdrops has an extensive range of custom-painted backdrops in various sizes and ships throughout the United States and internationally. I've used Fine Art Backdrops for a few years now, and they are the creators behind the small gray backdrop that I've used for a few dozen beauty sessions at this point.
Ethan Alex Backdrops
Among another favorite backdrop maker of mine is the work of Ethan Alex at Ethan Alex Backdrops. Like Fine Art Backdrops, Ethan custom-makes his backdrops and sells the individually numbered pieces on his Instagram on a first-come, first-serve basis (and they usually go pretty quickly). While Fine Art Backdrops are known and loved for their lighter and airier tones, Ethan really specializes in making the darker, more dramatic backdrop shades, though he will occasionally surprise us with a light blue or two.
Of the four backdrop companies mentioned in this article, Obsidian is the one brand I don't have personal experience with, but felt was worth shouting out based on the reputation they've built among my friends and colleagues. Obsidian Studios is a New England-based backdrop company put together by Derek Soohoo and Jay Coy. If Fine Art Backdrops are known for their bright, rich colors, and Ethan Alex is known for his dramatic tones, then Obsidian Studios specializes in textures and industrial looks. In addition to purchasing backdrops, Obsidian recently opened up a rental program for their backdrops, available on their website.
And the final mention in this article is the company that really got me started in hand-painted canvases to begin with, Gravity Backdrops. Based in Europe, Gravity Backdrop ships worldwide and has created over a thousand backdrops in its nearly 10 years in business. While shipping can be expensive, Gravity has the largest selection of custom backdrops available, with a large store and plenty of photos.
To summarize, here is my list of recommendations to bring a new element into your portrait photography work. Over the last couple of years, no other piece of equipment has changed the style of my work for the better, and that has resulted in a pretty large collection of backdrops to use in my work. While it’s easy to justify buying a new light or lens to “better” your photography if you’re a studio photographer, consider looking into a new custom backdrop.