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Photoflex Lighting School

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Pure White Background Done Right

Lighting Equipment

Photographers are often required to produce photos with pure white backgrounds for many purposes: Fashion catalogs, product pages on websites, book illustrations, scientific and industrial uses, etc. Art directors call these photos ‘background knock-outs’ or ‘self-masked’ shots. A commercial photographer must know how to produce these photos quickly and reliably.

When you look at a well done photo with a pure white background it looks easily done. That’s not the case. Just having a white background is not enough. Try it without using the techniques in this lesson and you’ll get a muddy gray background. Imagine yourself with five fashion models waiting to go on set and your client is standing over your shoulder peering at your LCD. He looks at his watch and says, “The pictures look muddy. We’re running late. What’s wrong?”

This lesson demonstrates some simple, professional techniques to successfully lighting a full length pure white background model shot.

(Click on any thumbnail image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  •     Making the Best of Built-In Flash Results

  •     Deciding on a Main Light

  •     Lighting for the Background

  •     Adding a Hair Light
Lights, Camera, Action!

  •     Final Comparison


The Photoflex® FlashFire Wireless Transmitter and Receiver comes included with every strobe lighting kit Photoflex® offers. This equipment allows you to be untethered with your camera, rather than having to stay confined to within a few feet of your lights.

The transmitter simply mounts to the hot shoe of your camera. [figure 1]

The receiver comes with a sync cable that plugs into the sync port of your StarFlash®. [figure 2]

Figure 1

Figure 2

Making the Best of Built-In Flash Results

When you think about the concept of a commercially silhouetted shot, you realize that it's basically about capturing subject matter in some idealized, dirt-free environment: a white room emanating white light from every direction. So as a photographer, the closer you can come to creating at least a little slice of such a room, the better your results will be.

To give you an example of how silhouetting cannot work with just any old photo, I decided to take a shot of my model, Rebecca, standing on the white seamless sweep we would use for this lesson, with my camera set to AUTO mode and the built-in flash activated. As you can see from the result, the overall shot is pretty dark due to the fact that the flash was not powerful enough to expose her properly. [figure 3]

Figure 3

Nevertheless, I decided to take this image and do my best (without spending too much time) to make it look silhouetted. I first lightened the overall image in Photoshop, then used the Pen tool to draw a path around her body, and finally deleted the background to reveal pure white. You can see the results below. [figure 4]

TIP: To learn more about using the Pen tool and other selection methods in Photoshop, check out the following lessons on WebPhotoSchool®:

Introduction to Photoshop's Pen Tool
Using Photoshop Tools
Making Selections

Figure 4

As you can see, this heavily edited result is significantly improved over the original and we have achieved a silhouette. But no amount of editing can make this shot look as though Rebecca was standing in an illuminated white room. (Well, maybe I shouldn't say "no amount," as there are some talented digital artists out there who could bring this result up a few notches, but it would most certainly take a significant amount of time to do so.) Okay, enough with the digital experimentation. Let's move on to the lighting.

Deciding on a Main Light

The first thing I did, after disabling the built-in flash, was to set up my main light. When you set up to photograph your subjects full-length, it's good to make sure your lighting will illuminate them evenly. And for a natural look, the lighting (particularly the main light) should be soft as well. In order to achieve soft, even light, you need a SoftBox, or a diffused light source, that's close in size to your subject matter. Here, I decided to use a 5-foot OctoDome® as my main light, which is ideal for this type of shooting.

Once the OctoDome was set up, I attached it to a StarFlash® 650 head and Medium LiteStand and positioned it just to the right of where I would be shooting. [figures 5 & 6]

Figure 5

Figure 6

The OctoDome is very versatile in terms of how you can configure it. In addition to having both a removable front diffusion face and a removable interior baffle (made of the same diffusion fabric as the front face), it also has four removable internal panels that are gold on one side and silver on the other. These panels allow you to warm up and/or boost the contrast of your lighting. You can also remove the panels entirely and simply use the white walls of the OctoDome to reflect the light of the strobe.

For this shoot, I decided to use a mixture of panels so that two of them reflected gold and two of them reflected silver. This would give me a bright, warm light that was also nicely diffused. [figure 7]

After the panels were in place, I reattached the internal baffle and front diffusion face. [figure 8]

Figure 7

Figure 8

Once the main light was powered on, I synced my camera to it via the new Photoflex FlashFire Wireless Transmitter and Receiver and made some camera setting adjustments. First, I set the exposure mode to Manual, set the shutter/sync speed to 1/200th of a second, and then set the aperture to f/7.1. I also made sure the ISO was set to 100 and that the file format was set to RAW.

Once everything was ready to go, I took a few shots, one of which you can see below. [figure 9]

Figure 9

As you can see from the result, the lighting on Rebecca looks terrific. She is softly and evenly lit and the slight angle of the OctoDome makes for some subtle, yet articulated shadows across the face and dress -- something you can't get from a built-in flash.

Lighting for the Background

The white paper background, however, does not read as white here, and there are two ways you can look at why it doesn't.

The first is that I dialed in the exposure settings on the camera and the power settings on the strobe so that Rebecca would be properly exposed. I was not exposing for the white background, which if I had, would have resulted in Rebecca being overexposed.

The second way you can look at it is that there's not enough light on the background to make it read as white. In this scenario, the fix is pretty simple: add more light to the background, which is just what I decided to do. I opted for a StarFlash 150 Gemini LiteDome® Kit to illuminate the background, since it's comprised of two light kits, but substituted the Small LiteDome with another Medium LiteDome for an even result.

Since the camera-left side of the shot was darker than the right with shadow, I decided to first place a medium LiteDome setup off to the left and set it to about 2/3 power. [figures 10 & 11]

Figure 10

Figure 11

After hooking up my second FlashFire Receiver to it and making sure everything was synced up, I took a few more shots. Here's one from that series. [figures 12 & 13]

Figure 12

Figure 13

As you can see from the result, the left side of the frame now reads as white, and the shadow cast from the main light has all but disappeared. The right side, however, was still not bright enough to read as pure white.

So next, I brought in the other LiteDome setup, set it to 2/3 power, and positioned it on the other side of the set to balance out the exposure on the background. [figures 14 & 15]

Figure 14

Figure 15

After hooking up another FlashFire Receiver to this strobe and testing the connection, I took a few more shots. Here is one from that series. [figures 16 & 17]

Figure 16

Figure 17

At this point, the background exposure was exactly where I wanted it: pure white, but not so bright as to bleed in and overexpose Rebecca's outline.

Adding a Hair Light

For a finishing touch, I decided to add one more light to illuminate Rebecca's hair. Hair lights can really help to add texture and shape to your subject's hair, and if you pay special attention to magazine spreads and professional portraiture, as well as scenes in movies and tv shows, you'll see this specialty light being used a lot.

In addition to creating definition in the hair, it also serves to separate the subject from the background. And while you won't see a huge difference with a hair light where the background is pure white, as it is here, it does nonetheless elevate the look of the shot.

Here, I set up a Photoflex® Boom and Boom Stand and secured a StarFlash 150 head to it with a Small HalfDome™ attached. I counterbalanced the light with a Photoflex® RockSteady bag that hooked onto the other end of the Boom. After syncing this light up, I positioned it about two feet above Rebecca, a little behind her head so as to prevent any of this light from illuminating her forehead or nose, and angled it slightly toward the front of the set. [figure 18]

Figure 18

Here are some alternate views of this final lighting setup. [figures 19 & 20]

Figure 19

Figure 20

With everything synced up, I took a few more shots to ensure the lighting was where I wanted it. Here is one of those outtakes. [figure 21]

Figure 21

At this point, I was ready to shoot with Rebecca striking some more interesting poses.

NOTE: In this result shot, you'll see that the foreground is not pure white, as is the rest of the background. While I could have taken pains to set up another light (possibly two) and dedicate it to this front area, I also knew that it would be much easier taking the digital route later in Photoshop to make this area pure white. More on that later.


Before moving on to the final results, I thought I'd offer up a side-by-side look at the lighting results so far. [figure 22]

Figure 22

Lights, Camera, Action!

With the camera and lighting setup all dialed in, I was now free to concentrate on my interaction with Rebecca as I shot. I took a fair number of shots and guided her as she struck many different poses. Below are some of our favorites of this final series. [figures 23, 24 & 25]

Figure 23

Figure 24

Figure 25

Note that these final results above have been edited slightly so that the background is rendered as pure white. To do this, I simply used a soft-edged white brush in Photoshop to paint over the gray areas of the seamless background paper. It took less than a minute to do each one.

Final Comparison

And now for the final comparison: the one between the first built-in flash result and the final lit result. Can you make out the differences in lighting? [figure 26]

Figure 26

As always, remember to experiment with your lighting, and above all, have fun in the process!


Written and photographed by Ben Clay, contributing lesson writer for WebPhotoSchool.com® and Photoflex.com®.

Modeled by Rebecca Roach.

Hair, makeup and styling by Tamara Savage Clay.

Lighting Equipment


On August 24, 2015 at 06:01 PM, Joo said:

Thanks for a clear demonstration and explanation!

On August 31, 2015 at 11:05 AM, Maha Towne said:

This demonstration was very helpful to me. I have a question about my own need to get a pure white background while I am photographing Jewelry for website purposes.  I use a light tent and have lighting to illumine my box. What do you recommend for the settings on my camera, and how can I illumine my diamond rings without making them look washed out while at the same time getting a pure white background.

Thank you,

On September 03, 2015 at 04:56 AM, James said:

my problem is I have to shoot in my living room I have very little space on one side of the wall and very minimal space for the people to stand so they are always pretty close to the background. How would I set up a shot and a very small room to get a headshot and a full body shot for white background

On November 05, 2015 at 11:59 AM, Have Patience said:

I personally believe that you should have patience when it comes to lighting. Light takes time okay? So shut the fuck up thinking you know about patience & light when you clearly don’t. Bi-atch.

On January 04, 2016 at 04:03 AM, Johnson said:


Even a seemingly non-controversial topic such as this one gets some troll such as yourself to show up and with foul language and the normal low-class human behaviors…simply incredible.

On January 06, 2016 at 11:46 PM, Justin said:

Hi! So extremely helpful, with a super cheap budget, coolpixL330, a rather glossy white “thrift board” as my background I have been able to get somewhat descent product photos of which I sell vtg clothing. The problem I keep running into is the exact same problem you have in fig. 13! what should I do next? Considering I have read all of the above & may I remind you I have a very limited budget? ie purchasing a softbox, diffuser, background lights? -JUSTIN


On June 17, 2016 at 12:55 AM, rigor said:

thank so much , its such a great tutorial using strobe lights.. i learned a lot and i figured it out the uses of those lights ..

On July 29, 2016 at 04:22 AM, Adrian Lobo - LobozPics said:

Thanks a lot, a very helpful tutorial to understand the pure white background I always wanted.

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