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Create your own studio set

Here is how we designed and built one.


You too can build a simple, versatile backdrop like this weathered-wood wall. You'll be amazed at how often you use it.
You too can build a simple, versatile backdrop like this weathered-wood wall. You'll be amazed at how often you use it.

THE BACKDROP

It is not that difficult to construct a simple backdrop that can form the basis for what appears in photographs to be an elaborate set.

Often, the biggest problem you will have is where to store it (and the props that go with it) when not in use.

When space is limited, storage can often be made easier if the backdrop can be broken down into smaller units, which is the case with this weathered-wood backdrop.


It is 8-feet wide and 6'8" tall, and can be split apart into two 4-foot wide units, which are relatively simple for one person to manipulate.

Each half of the backdrop is held together by two 46" long by 3" wide strips of light-weight 5/16" plywood, attached by several screws to the tops and bottoms of each of the boards.

The halves are held together by three 8-foot wide removable strips of the same plywood.

Each of these longer strips has only four screws attaching it to the backdrop - just twelve in total. It's a quick job to unscrew them, and then the sides come apart.

This rear view shows the plywood strips that are used to hold the backdrop's sections together. Note how clean the boards are. They were severely planed to reduce their weight.
This rear view shows the plywood strips that are used to hold the backdrop's sections together. Note how clean the boards are. They were severely planed to reduce their weight.

Alignment markings clearly show where the plywood strips are to be attached when assembling the backdrop.
Alignment markings clearly show where the plywood strips are to be attached when assembling the backdrop.

Each of the plywood strips is marked with lines that correspond with similar lines on the half-sections, showing exactly how they are meant to be lined up when assembling the sections.

Weight is another consideration in backdrop design, since moving, setting up and storing a light backdrop is so much easier.

This one is only 3/4" thick, a result of severely planing the rear sides of the boards to reduce the overall bulk, making it quite easy for one person to handle while keeping its sturdiness.

A backdrop doesn't need its wood (or other material it may be made from) to be as thick as, say, a barn's wall. Its front surface presentation is what is important - how it looks when photographed, like a Hollywood movie set. Its thickness is determined by how much handling will be done of it. You want a sturdy backdrop that will not weigh too much to be easily lifted, and won't break or fall apart when being disassembled or moved. If your backdrop is made of painted styrofoam panels, light plastic sheets or another ultra-light material, all the better.


A backdrop needs to be firmly supported.

It can of course be solidly fastened to a wall in any number of ways, however we wanted this particular backdrop to have a few feet of space behind it so that someone could, for example, peek through the window that is built into it.

That meant coming up with another form of support that would be just as secure.

Allowing for space behind the backdrop lets someone peek through its window. (The autumn leaves were digitally added.)
Allowing for space behind the backdrop lets someone peek through its window. (The autumn leaves were digitally added.)

Strong cord slung over a firmly-attached pipe system on the ceiling and tied to the backdrop gives the backdrop the support it needs to be maintained in a firm vertical position.
Strong cord slung over a firmly-attached pipe system on the ceiling and tied to the backdrop gives the backdrop the support it needs to be maintained in a firm vertical position.

Our studio happens to have a series of metal pipes solidly attached to the ceiling, installed there in order to suspend studio lights from them and also to suspend objects being photographed using wire, fish line, etc. so they appear to be floating.

For this backdrop, we ran a length of thick, heavy-duty nylon cord over one of these pipes, and secured it to cleats screwed to the rear of the backdrop.

Tighten the cord, and - voila - the backdrop is held firmly in place in a vertical position.

This backdrop is flat and therefore it is essentially two-dimensional. But most photographs benefit from a sense of depth.

ADD PROPS FOR THE FINAL TOUCH

In order to provide the backdrop with a degree of three-dimensionality, and to add interest and to enhance its credibility as a background for a particular subject, we attach props to it and also strategically place them in front of it, dependent upon the kind of scene we wish to create.


A western stable or barnyard feeling is achieved by attaching horseshoes and a bridle, however we could just as easily have a created the look of a railroad shed by affixing a foreman's lantern and some track tools to the backdrop, or created the appearance of an old fire hall interior with appropriate fire department props, or the illusion of a trapper's cabin by using pelts, traps and so on.

You get the picture. Versatility is the advantage of a simple backdrop such as this one. Keeping it simple allows you to do so much more with it.

We have over the years acquired a number of props for studio use, as you undoubtedly will for your own studio as time goes by.

In keeping with the western theme mentioned above, a saddle, a few bales of hay, a cowboy hat and other western paraphernalia complete the scene.

Other props based on different themes would change the look and feel of the set using this same backdrop. All that would be missing would be the subjects and any costumes they might wear to suit the theme.

Note of caution: Hay bales can be purchased straight from the farm or from display companies which can usually provide you with hay that has been treated to be fire-resistant and pest-free. Farm hay and display-ready hay look the same, but the additional cost of "safe" hay that comes without bugs and has the ability to resist catching fire is well worth paying the premium. Your insurance company will thank you, and you will have greater peace of mind when you turn the lights out after a day's studio work.

SUMMARY

You can see how simple and inexpensive it can be to create a versatile backdrop for a set, using a little creativity, planning and some elbow grease. Apply your own imagination and you may be amazed at how you can create a set of your own without breaking the bank. It could be as simple as painting a blue sky and a sandy beach on a wall, draping colored fabric from the ceiling, or building a wooden backdrop such as the one described here.

Attaching props to the backdrop itself can add interest and give three-dimensionality to an otherwise flat surface. Of course, adding an attractive model can make all the work worthwhile.
Attaching props to the backdrop itself can add interest and give three-dimensionality to an otherwise flat surface. Of course, adding an attractive model can make all the work worthwhile.