Incorporating Fabric Backdrops into Outdoor Portrait Photography
Learn what type of fabric backdrop works best and how to manipulate light with these tips for incorporating fabric in your outdoor portraits.
For photographers, taking portrait photos outdoors has its obvious advantages and challenges. Natural light is, of course, a lot easier to manipulate than working with countless artificial lights. However, you risk having a lack of control when you’re in an outdoor setting. One thing we love is an incorporation of both studio-style fabric backdrops and outdoor portrait photography. The result of this symbiotic relationship is a stunning image that can either look completely captured in studio, or a creative way to incorporate studio-style imagery with a hint of outdoor appeal.
Setting up an outdoor fabric backdrop and creating an outdoor studio setup is easy with a few DIY tricks. Here you’ll find an overview of how to incorporate fabric backdrops into outdoor portrait photography, as well as some inspirational photographs to spark your imagination.
Creating an Outdoor Photography Studio Using Fabric Backdrops
There’s a plethora of reasons why you might want to create an outdoor studio setting for your photography. If you shoot for stock, you may not have a client budget to rent or use a photography studio. If you’re a beginner, you might not be comfortable with using artificial lighting in interior spaces. And, even during COVID-19, having access to photography studios can be challenging with government restrictions and regulations. Moving a shoot outdoors helps solve that problem.
You can easily manipulate an outdoor setting to look like a studio with a few technical tricks to set up a truly unique environment. Here’s our top three factors for creating a truly breathtaking outdoor portrait photoshoot.
1. Fabric Backdrop
A fabric backdrop is the first essential element to creating a studio-like environment. This doesn’t have to be something fancy from a camera shop. It could be anything from your grandmother’s linen tablecloth to a duvet cover that falls just right. The most important thing is to test that the light and color work for the type of image you want to create. We like using cotton or linen when we’re looking for a more natural look—wrinkles and all.
If you need wrinkle-free and a truly flat surface, use a heavier material (or even a canvas tarp) as your backdrop. We don’t suggest working with rolls of backdrop paper outdoors. It’s easy to damage in outdoor environments, not to mention incredibly difficult to manipulate and move around.
2. “Something” to Hang the Fabric Backdrop
Now, we’re not saying you need to lug around a full stand for your fabric backdrop, but you’re going to need something to hang it with. You can find stands for fairly cheap online. However, depending on the type of area you’re in, you might not need one. Here are some examples of how I used nature to hang fabric backdrops in different environments.
On the beach: Look for tall pieces of driftwood that you can easily tack fabric to and hang. You can also use a line of string or twine to hang it from one point to another.
In the forest: Try to find two trees that are a good length between each other, tie a rope, and drape the fabric over the rope to create an ethereal look.
In other environments: If you can’t find something to hang the fabric backdrop on, consider bringing a stand or, alternatively, two ladders that you can move around to hang the backdrop on.
You’ll also want to include some twine, tack, rope, clothes pins, etc., to help you hang and manipulate the fabric.
3. A Diffuser/Reflector Combination
This isn’t necessarily required for the shoot to happen, but it certainly does help (especially if you have an extra pair of hands to hold the diffuser/reflector). This can be as simple as a foldable circular diffuser/reflector combination—such as this one—or a full kit.
But, essentially, having a diffuser and reflector will help a lot when you’re manipulating natural light. If you’re shooting on a bright, sunny day, you’ll want this combination and a helping friend to guide some of that natural light just where you want it. Without it, you’ll have a hard time manipulating natural conditions outdoors.
Benefits of Using Fabric Backdrops in Portrait Photography Outdoors
When I first became a photographer, I wasn’t really interested in studio photography work. The idea of manipulating artificial light seemed daunting to me. And, it’s almost impossible to make it feel natural—unless you have thousands of dollars to spend on professional equipment.
However, there were opportunities where I needed to take portraits of people, and using natural backgrounds set in nature just didn’t fit the brief. As beautiful as the background of an ocean is, it didn’t really fit the style of a “business portrait” or similar. What I found was that bringing studio-like equipment outdoors allowed me to shoot studio-style work, without having to physically be in a studio to create that work. Here are a few benefits I found working with fabric backdrops outdoors.
More Control of Your Environment
Setting up a studio-like environment outdoors gives photographers more control over the final image. When you introduce a backdrop to your images, you’re taking away the elements of nature that make one location unique to another. That way, you’re able to shoot any type of brief simply by changing the type of backdrop you’re using. For example, you can use a plain black backdrop for more editorial portraits, or use a white linen backdrop for more lifestyle-focused imagery.
Shoot Anywhere in the World
Having a kit that allows you to shoot portraits outdoors means you can shoot anywhere in the world. Even if you’re a travel photographer, you can capture the same portrait no matter where you are, and have it look and feel the exact same. This can be really helpful for photographers looking to develop a specific brand where studio-style imagery is more popular, as it doesn’t tie you to one particular location or place.
Shooting Photos Outside = Less Overhead Costs
Another bonus of shooting portraits outside using fabric backdrops is that you have minimal overhead costs. This can be a huge benefit for stock creators who, more often than not, have to use their own budget to create images that sell later on the marketplace. Shooting outdoors means you don’t have to pay for studio time, and you can be more flexible about shooting based on both the models’ availability and your own.
Types of Fabric Backdrops
Now that I’ve sold you on using fabric backdrops in your outdoor portrait photography, let’s review a few key types of fabric backdrops commonly used in this type of photography. From simple color to thick canvas, the sky’s the limit.
My favorite place to get fabric backdrops is my local thrift store, which often has old sheets in vintage patterns and truly unique fabrics that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. However, you can also get fabric backdrops at hardware stores, most camera shops, and (of course) online.
Fabric Backdrops: Canvas
Using canvas backdrops is quite popular in outdoor portrait photography, as you can essentially find canvas backdrops at any hardware store. Canvas backdrops are heavier and bulky, so they won’t crease and wrinkle easily. However, these are usually only available in one color (beige)—unless you special order them—so the use can be limited.
Fabric Backdrops: Muslin
Muslin is another popular fabric for fabric backdrop studio photography. This is what you’ll typically find at most camera shops, and comes in a wide variety of colors and prints. They’re generally made from cotton, are lighter and more portable than canvas, and are available in different sizes depending on your needs.
Fabric Backdrops: Linen Sheets
One of my favorite types of fabrics to use in portrait photography is linen. It’s softer and more ethereal than using plain cotton or canvas, and has a natural movement to it that works for my photography. The one thing with linen is that it wrinkles easy, so make sure you either want to work with wrinkles or you bring some sort of portable steamer to remove them before you shoot.
Fabric Backdrops: Vintage Fabric
As previously mentioned, you can basically use any type of fabric for your shoot. We had a backyard wedding where the tables were covered in vintage fabric found at thrift stores. I found that those sheets worked perfectly for some really unique portrait photographs afterwards. Simply go to your local thrift store, find the pattern you like, then get creative!
Looking for more portrait photography tips? Check out these articles: