BL Blog

Blowing out the Background

Gear Talk Tips & Tricks
Ben on a greyish-blue background.

Ben on a greyish-blue background.

The image above was not shot on a white background. It has a minimal level of adjustment in Lightroom to it, mostly to clean up the edges, but that’s about it. It was taken in front of the greyish-blue wall in the lobby of the offices in San Carlos.

The thing about a relatively light-colored background is that it lends itself to a surprisingly large number of options for photographers. Though grey backgrounds work best for this, you can with some tweaking, turn just about any light-colored background — grey, blue, beige — completely black, as I demonstrated in this article on how to kill your background completely.

In this article, I’ll show you how to blow out that background completely to make it look like you’re shooting in front of a white backdrop.

The setup for this portrait was exceedingly simple. I placed one Nikon SB-910 in a Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe and one bare-bulb, with the included diffuser attached.

The SB-910 in the Lastolite softbox was placed on camera-left, while the bare-bulb SB-910 was placed directly behind Ben, and slightly below the level of his shoulders. It was pointed up at an angle at the wall behind Ben, as shown below.

Lighting setup

Lighting setup

I set the flashes to manual, making sure that the flash hitting the wall was about 2 stops brighter than the flash on Ben’s face. The diffusion in the softbox cut the power of the light on Ben by another 1/3 stop or so, I estimate.

That was it. It took a bit of tweaking the power on the lights and the aperture for exposure and depth of field, but the final exposure was 1/250th at f/4, ISO 100. Light falloff resulted in the corners being a bit darker, but an exposure brush in Lightroom took care of that very easily.

As a bonus, if you’re looking to do a portrait in front of a similar wall, but don’t want it to go to full white and you want some variance in the color, try this: place the background flash to the site behind your subject. Have it pointed right at the wall and angle it in at about 45 degrees. What will end up happening is that you’ll get a gradient of light, going from one side to the other.

Gradient background with a single flash

Gradient background with a single flash

The nice thing with this technique is that if you angle it right, you can end up with a very nice rim light on your subject, which adds to the portrait.

So here’s a tip for you folks – try one of the tips above, but put a gel on your flash first. What kind of results do you get? Leave us a link in the comments below!


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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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  • Tien Ngo says:

    very helpful … thankyou 😀

  • Mark Hopkins says:

    Nice.. what size is that softbox?

  • Jodie says:

    Thanks for the tips. I’ll try the gradient background next time I’m doing portraits.

    BTW Ben is super cute. =)

  • wilfredo says:

    ugh..I rather use a strobe…using constant lighting for portraits, always mean softer images..when compared to strobe work…

  • micpistol says:

    It’d be cool if you linked the equip used to the rental gear pages.

  • Dustin says:

    It’d be better to use 3 speed lights total for this setup and flag the sides of the speedlights closest to the subject with some black flags so you don’t get the back fill which you can see on the subjects jaw / cheek area (the ghost / soft look).

  • Jeff says:

    I’d love to see a lighting setup picture for the gradient background lighting.

  • This guy would look great in any light!! Nice work!!

  • Leave a comment, a question, or show us your work!