Introduction: Make Perfect White Backgrounds (4 Ways + More Tips)
Pure white backgrounds can add professionalism to any instructable project. Unfortunately, the process can be lengthy. However, with a few simple tricks most items can be handled in a matter of minutes. These techniques are especially useful for 360 product photography where perfectly white backgrounds are a must but can be used for any object of any size (just scale as needed).
I would suggest getting at least one off camera flash (preferably two or three) and Adobe Photoshop. Adobe has a great subscription service for photographers where you get both Photoshop AND Lightroom for just $10/month. It's one of the best investments that you can make if you plan on pursuing photography. I will be using these programs extensively.
If you don't want to buy a flash, skip to Step 4 (you'll still want Photoshop)
I will also say that Lightroom is a sent from heaven if you plan to do 360 degree photography. It will allow you to make the same edits to as many photos as you need all with the push of a button. Suddenly, making initial crop and color adjustments only end up taking 60 seconds instead of setting up an action in Photoshop and letting it run which can take many minutes.
You will also need two sheets of white foam core board in addition to white paper. Here is the complete supplies list:
- Lightroom and Photoshop
- White foam core board
- flash (optional but needed for the best process)
- radio triggers (optional but really handy) (for Canon, for Nikon)
- light stand (optional depending on your floor space)
(note: I've been at this professionally for years using bigger versions of this equipment and I can honestly say that all the methods I will suggest come in to play for me depending on the needs of the shoot. I always work to make the background white in the camera but it's a bit of a crap shoot after that. If it's a black TV on a white background with a matte bezel I'll probably use either the quick selection tool or Select:Color Range tool if I only have a few items to do. However, something with reflective surfaces or very light in color almost always gets the pen tool treatment, especially if I have to shoot it flat against paper where I don't have the option of using multiple flashes to whiten the background. No situation is going to be exactly the same as another. This is just a simple guide to get you started, not the end-all, be-all of white background references. If I'm missing something or you feel my information is wrong, toss a comment at the bottom and I'll update my information.)
Step 1: The Best Way: Light the Background Separately From the Subject
The absolute best way to create a perfectly white background is to light your background separately from your subject. This is the quick and dirty at-home method. The concept is the same for high level professional shoots but the equipment and scale is different.
Unfortunately, this method requires two flashes. One flash will be for your background and one will be for you object. The key is to expose your white background two to three stops (or EV +2 or +3) above the lighting for your subject. Basically, shine a light on your background to over expose it in the camera.
One flash will point to the ceiling to bounce light evenly across your object. The other flash will point directly to the background to wash it out. Your background flash can be above, below, or to the side of your object. Your flashes will need to be set to slave mode and you will have to use your pop-up flash if you do not have radio or in-camera triggers.
I do most of my photography on a table that is about two feet from a wall which creates a space to shine a flash up and through. Using this method keeps most of the stray light from the flash from falling back onto the product which creates a back light effect.
You can also use a light stand to position your flash above the product or to the side. If you are working from the side it is easier to control the light spill. Just use a piece of white foam core board to create a shadow.
The first thing you need to to is set your camera to manual mode. I like to start with my settings at ISO 200, 1/125 shutter speed, and f/8.
From there I set my flash for my object's power rating. Typically, it's very low because my ceilings are very low, somewhere around 1/16 power. Increase the power as needed until your object is properly exposed.
Next, set your background flash power. Start around an 1/8th power and point it directly behind the object and increase the power as needed. You will see that the pure white circle behind your object grows as you increase the power level. Increase the power until the circle completely covers the area around your object.
Then, take your photo. (If you're using this tutorial for 360 photography for videos or gifs, use a tripod to take your photos)
First, you need to pull up your Information pane. This will allow you to see when you have reached pure white. Use the Curves adjustment (Image->Adjustment->Curves) to lighten the background as light as you can but without losing important details (like the glue stick in my example).
Then, using the quick select tool, select the entire area that you need to be white. In troublesome areas which are on a pure white background, leave some space around the object with your selection tool. Then, use your curves to lighten the entire background.
This is a very quick process. It is only 3-4 minutes start to finish and yields some great results and doesn't wash out the image you are trying to photograph.
Step 2: Light Only the Background (Primarily Used for 360 Product Photography)
My second method was born out of necessity. While it works and produces quick results, it's really best suited for 360 product photography which requires numerous photos be edited quickly. If I only have a single photo to of an object to edit, I skip this method.
You will need one flash and two pieces of white foam core board.The idea with this method is much like the last method, light the background and object with different intensities. This time we are using the light spill from the single flash to combine with reflected light to expose the object.
Position your flash above and slightly in front of your object. This can be done by leaning a light stand over the table. Pull the bounce card out of your flash and then angle your flash head down slightly. Set your flash to slave mode and either trigger it optically with your pop-up flash or with your internal trigger if you have one and your flash is capable.
Foam Core Boards:
Put your foam core boards angled in towards your object and touching your background. Be sure that you can shoot through the hole between the two boards. These boards reflect light back on to your subject. The closer you can get them to your object without being in frame the more intense the light reflected onto your object will be thus making it brighter. If you don't use something to reflect the light back in, your object will be completely back-lit meaning that the face you are photographing will be in a shadow.
Then, set your camera to manual mode. I like to start with my settings at ISO 200, 1/125 shutter speed, and f/8. From there I set my flash for my object's power rating. Typically, it's very low because my ceilings are very low, somewhere around 1/16 power. Increase the power as needed until your object is properly exposed.
Start with your flash power around 1/16. As you take pictures and review them, you will see an oval appear that is completely white. Increase the power until the white circle completely covers your object. Then, take your photos.
If you are lighting the background only you will end up using the quick select tool (if you're lucky) or pen tool (if you aren't lucky). Start by either outlining your object or creating a path with the clipping tool. Then, go to Select and mask and set your "Smooth" to 12 and your "feather" to 2.5 and press "ok." Then delete your background.
If you used your quick selection tool you may have to clean up the shadows a bit as it often leaves them a bit messy. Then pen tool can clip closer to the true object and is a better, albeit, more lengthy process.
Step 3: Light Only the Subject
Lighting only the subject is a bad idea if you are going for speed. In the end you will have to follow one or more of the clipping techniques below or pay to outsource the work (and it may cost more since your background may not be easy to differentiate from your subject.
It takes just a bit longer to light the background only (follow the tutorial) but will save you time in post production.
Now that my warning is done, let's learn how to do this! (It's the same as the first half of Lighting the Object and Background Separately)
I pretty much only use this method if I have one flash and one photo to take (or I plan on outsourcing the clipping).
The first thing you need to to is set your camera to manual mode. I like to start with my settings at ISO 200, 1/125 shutter speed, and f/8.
From there I set my flash for my object's power rating. Typically, it's very low because my ceilings are very low, somewhere around 1/16 power. Increase your flash power until your object is correctly lit. You will notice that your background is not completely white.
Follow the clipping path tutorial below. There isn't much else you can do.
Step 4: Available Light Only
Flashes are an important part of photography, especially today. Today's lighting options are terrible for photography. LED and CFL bulbs score very low in CRI (low 60's for LEDs to mid 90's for highly specialized CFL bulbs). CRI stands for Color Rendering Index. These low scores are why photos taken in a home tend to be dull color wise even if everything is properly exposed. Incandescent bulbs and flashes have a CRI score of nearly 100
That said, not everybody wants to buy a flash and I can appreciate that.
So, let's head outside into the shade. Even lighting is very important. For great results you're going to have to edit a little bit. With that in mind, take your two sheets of foam core board out with you.
(note: it is important to know that white printer paper is not photographic white. It is frequently blue, pink, or yellow to your sensor. Foam core and certain card-stocks are closer to true photographic white. If you keep your foam core clean, it will last years. Rustoleum flat white spray paint renders just a bit on the blue side but it is still better than ordinary copy paper).
Keep your lighting even
The day I did this it was very overcast which is terrific for photography. If you don't have that luxury, just head to the shade. I used two sheets of foam core. You could use paper to span the crack between the two boards but frankly, it takes longer to tape the paper in place than it does to remove the crack in Photoshop. Taping paper also tends to leave gaps and lines where the paper isn't exactly flush meaning you still have lines to remove with an eraser.
Expose your photo for the object. If you're shooting on auto, your camera will expose for the background and be two stops or so under exposed. If you can tell it to shoot two stops over exposed (EV +2), your life will be easier. If you can't then you will just have to bump the exposure during post processing.
Then, it is as simple as the rest of the Curves + other tool tutorials. Start by whitening your background with the curves tool. Try to get the areas all around your object perfectly white without losing anything along the object (like my glue stick). Then, erase your line from the two sheets of foam core. I cropped the image hoping that would do the trick but I still had more to erase.
That's it, you're done!
Step 5: Time Consuming and Less Accurate Methods
Depending on the needs of a job, occasionally I have no choice but to use the pen tool. This produces great results but is very time consuming. Essentially, you have to trace along the outside of the entire object. Some objects, like a TV, are very easy. Other objects, like a heat sink with pipes and fins, are awful. Like I said, sometimes you just don't have much of a choice.
Occasionally, I am able to use the Select Color Range tool but it is rare. I will use it for things that aren't reflective or lightly colored and are typically hanging rather than laying on a table.
For reflective or lightly colored items, use the pen tool:
The pen tool allows you to easily trace around an object. You can draw straight lines between points or you can draw curved lines. The pen tool isn't my forte since I only use it to draw masks. The basic functions are as follows:
- Single click: places a point, will connect two points with a straight line.
- Click and drag: creates an arc.
- Alt+Click on a previous point: allows you to stop making curved lines (like I said, I'm bad with this tool.
To use the tool and remove the background simply trace along the outside edge of your object. Once your path is complete, click "Selection." Then, for "feather radius" I use 2 pixels, You can use more or less but you do want some feather. Click "OK." Then, go to your "Select" menu and click "Inverse" (Shift+Control+I). This will change your selection from your object to your background. Then all you have to do is press delete.
Use the pen tool when you don't have the luxury of photographing on a flat background.
For objects where the background is nearly all one color but not pure white, use the Select Color Range Tool with a Curves Adjustment:
This one is fairly easy. Using the Color Range selection tool (Select->Color Range) you can grab most of the background and change it to white easily. Once you have the Select Color Range tool open, set your fuzziness to 10. Then, click on your background. To add the areas that weren't initially selected, hold the Shift Key and click on those areas. Continue clicking until you have grabbed all the background.
Then, click the Select and Mask button. Set your "Smooth" value to 10 or 15 and your "Feather" to 2 or 3. Then all that is left to do is press "delete" to remove your background. You may have to clean up directly under the object if there is a heavy shadow but the vast majority of your background should be removed.
When your object is surrounded by white but much of the background is still visible, use shapes:
I've witnessed too many tutorials where individuals use an eraser to remove the remaining background. While this works great if you have one object, it's a pain if you have a 360 degree product gif with 72 images. Creating shapes with an action is the best way to go with this method.
As I said, I use the Select Color Range from time to time to lighten my backgrounds. As soon as I have enough space around an object I will cover the rest with white shapes. This removes the background and the whole process can be automated with Photoshop actions.
Setting an action to fill in the rest of your background is very simple. Start a new action, place your shapes, and then stop your action. This will automatically add those same shapes every time you run the action.
Step 6: A Note About Using Curves Only.
I have seen tutorials where folks use Curves adjustments only. While this works great if you have basically already removed the background, it fails miserably if you're just shooting on white paper in your dinning room.
The problem is that when you shoot on white paper inside, the white is rarely white, it's closer to 15% grey. So, when you whiten the background to white, you're lifting all the values substantially. Anything that was close to 15% grey or lighter will now be white, anything that was black will now be noticeably grey. This problem is made worse as soon as you get into objects with reflections or any sort of transparency.
This is a great and quick tool. I use it all the time after I've already done my camera work to get the background as white as possible. I just don't recommend it as the only tool to use.