Backgrounds for photography and making DIY backdrops

Photography backgrounds are a key part of any image — they can make or break your photo. Choosing the best backdrop material is crucial, but knowing which one to use can be tricky.

To help you make the most of your image, I’ve outlined some key points to think about when selecting a background and included two DIY photography backgrounds that you can easily make.

What backdrop is the best for photography?

Whether you’re photographing people or products, there is a wide range of photography backgrounds to choose from. From simple colours to mottled canvas, the sky is the limit. Different types of backgrounds include paper, fabrics such as muslin or canvas, MDF sheets, pop up backgrounds or coves (cycloramas), to name just a few.

Types of studio backdrops

1. Fabric - Canvas & Muslin

Fashion photography using canvas backdrop
A fashion image taken using a DIY canvas backdrop.
Laying down some studio protection before sealing and painting begins
First seal the cloth backdrop cloth with PVA
Painting the base coat of a DIY oliphant backdrop
Once dry, hang up backdrop and start taking photos.

Fabric backdrops such as canvas or muslin are popular due to their variety and portability. Canvas backgrounds are generally more bulky and heavy than muslin backgrounds, but can offer some great depth and colour (I’ll cover how to make your own canvas backdrop later). Muslin backgrounds are constructed from cotton and, as a result, are lighter than canvas, though they too come in a variety of styles.

2. Paper rolls

Portrait photo using paper backdrop
A portrait image from our Portrait classes taken using a paper backdrop.
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Paper rolls come in a variety of widths and are available in a range of different colours. Advantages of paper rolls is the variety and affordability, but they can be difficult to store. A further drawback to paper rolls is that they crease very easily which can show in your images. They are also not very portable.

3. Wooden boards

Photography backdrop wooden board example
A product shot using different types of wooden boards to form the base surface.

I often use wooden boards for my product photography — you’ll see them used in our whisky live show as well as in a number of food photography classes. You can find a great variety of wooden boards and they can be fairly cheap to come by. You can repurpose old table tops as boards and you can easily find pieces with real character at second hand markets or antique shops. If you’re looking for more creative and tailored looks, you can even make your own boards (I show you how later in this post).

4. Duo Boards

Photography backdrop MDF sheet example

Duo Boards - nearly 40 different anti-glare food photography backdrops to choose from

These boards are ideal for food photography. Back in the day these backdrops were hand-painted by skilled artists for use in photography studios. Nowadays, these double-sided photo backdrops help in the creation of pro level images for commercial photographers as well as small-scale businesses and influencers working out of their homes - perfect when you need to quickly replicate backdrops with unsurpassed quality.

5. MDF sheets

Photography backdrop MDF sheet example
A product shot using different types of wooden boards to form the base surface.

I often use sheets of MDF for backgrounds for product photography as they offer a lovely smooth background that you can easily paint to get the exact colour you want. They can also be repainted, which means you can get more than one use out of them too. Most local hardware stores will have them in a few different sizes and as they’re fairly lightweight they can easily be stored and don’t take up too much room.

6. Pop up background

Pop up photography backdrop
Shot during a live show, this portrait image featured a pop up backdrop.

Pop up backgrounds are ideal for photographers working on location or in small spaces. These collapsible backgrounds are available in a variety of colours, everything from neutral grey to mottled blue, and often offer a reversible side. They are lightweight, easy to transport and affordable. However, they can be limited in size, which makes them tricky to use if you’re wanting to do full length portraits.

Watch: Studio backgrounds

The type of backdrop you choose depends on what you’re photographing and careful thought should be given as to which background is the best for your shot. Things to think about when selecting your background include the colour, texture and size. Consider how each of these will work with your shot — will they compliment it or distract from it?

Background Colour Choice

Colour is an important part of an image: it can help set the mood and also guide the eye. Colour theory is something that plays a big part in my work and as photographers it’s something worth understanding. When choosing your background, think about whether you want bright, contrasting colours (complimentary colours) or more subtle hues.

Portrait by Tom Oldham
An example of complimentary colours used in food photography, using MDF sheets as the background.
Portrait by Tom Oldham
This fashion image features matching hues, which was achieved by painting the background - a cove.

Backdrop Texture

Texture is also important in photography. Sometimes a bit of texture can really add to an image, but other times it only serves as a distraction. If your background distracts from your image, you’ll lose your viewer. Think about your product — does it need a smooth, clean background or will it work on a more textured surface.

Below is an example from one of our food photography classes, where I shot an image of a pot of ginger and lime tea with food photographer and stylist Anna Pustynnikova. Here you can see how the lighter, smoother board didn’t work for the rustic look we were going for. The darker, more textured board (which was one we’d made ourselves) worked much better. This shows the importance of both colour and texture in background choice.

Example of photography backdrop
Example of photography backdrop

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Background Size

Last but not least, think about the size of your background. If you’re photographing a full length portrait, a sheet of MDF probably won’t work (unless it’s a small child maybe). However, you could easily get away with a sheet of it if you’re photographing a bottle of whisky or a handbag. You don’t want to rely on Photoshop to extend your background — if you can, get it right in camera.

That being said, don’t let yourself be limited by the size of your background either — get creative and see what solutions you can come up with. For example, I have a mobile wall in the studio that I often paint if I need a bigger background than say, a sheet of MDF or a pop up background.

Where to find photography backdrops

Photography backgrounds aren’t hard to come by. You can find them online from companies such as Lastolite or Colorama (remember, Visual Education subscribers enjoy exclusive discounts on these brands, Savage Universal, B&H, Wex Photo Video Amazon or eBay, to name just a few. For sheets of MDF or wooden boards, you can visit your local hardware store, which should stock a variety of options. This is a great place to start if you want to get creative and make your own. I also often repurpose old table tops as base surfaces and backdrops too — these can easily be found at second hand stores or antique shops.

Whisky product photo by Karl Taylor
This product image of Glenfiddich whisky used an old table top as the base surface.

How to make your own custom backdrops

When it comes to making your own photography backdrops, you can make your own with some pretty basic materials. Here I’ve included two examples of how to make your own photography backdrop with basic supplies you can find at any art or hardware store.

1. DIY canvas backdrop

This video shows how we made our own canvas backdrop for one of our workshops. To create your own DIY canvas backdrop you’ll need the following:

  • A large sheet of plastic (if you’re working indoors)
  • A blank piece of canvas material (you can find this at most art stores)
  • PVA glue
  • Water
  • A selection of paint colours for your base colour, wash colour and splatter effects.

Watch full video here.

2. DIY wooden board

We used a selection of different wooden surfaces as backgrounds and base surfaces for our food photography classes and many of our members were interested to know how we created them, so we put together a whole tutorial on this. If you don’t have time to watch the full class or aren’t a member (why aren’t you?!), I’ve outlined the basic steps below.
Whisky product photo by Karl Taylor

Tools used to make a DIY photography backdrop

  1. Think about your shot — What colours will work with your shot. Do you want a darker or lighter colour, older or newer look?
  2. Create a basic board — If you don’t already have a board, you can make your own by joining together old pieces of wood (pallets are an ideal, cheap source of wood)
  3. Age the wood — This can be done by burning the wood (this creates quite a lot of fumes, so it’s advisable to do this outside or in a well ventilated space)
  4. Add your base colour — You can find suitable paint for this at any hardware store
  5. Apply a colour wash — This can be done using acrylic paints that can be found at any art store.

Watch full class here.

As you’ll see in the full tutorial, the great thing about these is if you don’t like the final result or simply want something different, you can simply start again by painting over it all.

Recommended Content

As you'll have gathered from this post, backgrounds are an important component in any photograph. To help you create the very best image possible, below is a selection of related content that you may find useful.

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  1. PhotOMahuna

    Hey Karl,

    How are you, man? Can’t find any info about this online. Regarding grey muslin backdrops, specifically I was looking at popup/collapsable 5′ X 7′ ones for on-location corporate/business headshots, would a single strobe spread and illuminate it properly for the subject-background separation technique, like paper? Or would it get absorbed too much? (Never used muslin as a backdrop before). Looking at canvas rolls otherwise… less convenient, obviously.

    Many thanks,
    Kindest regards,

    1. Hi, 5ft x 7ft isn’t that big so what happens is your subject needs to be quite close to your background for you not to see the edges of it. When your subject is that close to the background then most of the background gets lit from the lights on your subject anyway. Yes you can still throw one light behind your subject on the background but there’s not a lot of room to do that and the effect of the light isn’t as pronounced because of the main lights falling on it. Personally I’d go with a darker grey than you’d like to end up with to compensate for all of this.

      1. PhotOMahuna

        Hey Karl,

        Thanks so much for the reply! I hear what you’re saying. So could I ask, what size/type of background kit would you recommend for on-location business portraits/headshots as obviously sometimes/often space is going to be limited? Perhaps a 9′ wide canvas/muslin backdrop and a backdrop stand kit? If using as smaller one like the pop-up 5′ X 7′ one as a backup for tighter spaces, then perhaps just use a hairlight for separation and no light on the backdrop? (Or the darker grey one as you suggest…)

        Kindest regards,

        1. Hi Craig, yes what you’ve described would sound like the best solution, then if you have the space you can go to the 9ft grey and have the distance to use a dedicated background light too.

          1. PhotOMahuna

            Excellent Karl, I really appreciate your help, thanks a million! Have a great week.

            Kindest regards,

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