There are lots of options when it comes to choosing the right backdrop for portraiture—starting with the material used. Muslin is a closely woven cloth produced from corded cotton yarn but what’s endeared it to photographers for all these years is that because of it’s light weight a muslin background can easily compressed into a small space making it ideal for location photography.
One of the advantages muslin has over canvas is that it’s less expensive. Muslin backgrounds are easier to transport and can be stuffed in a bag and tossed in your car’s trunk. For a different style than the last time you used a particular background, a muslin backdrop can be draped using clips (I like the heavy duty ones that Lowes sells) to provide a whole new look.
Because of their heavier weight, canvas backdrops are well suited for permanent locations. They can be expensive but the surface lets the artist produce realistic looking backdrops. Canvas backgrounds must be kept rolled when transporting to avoid creasing the material. All these factors combine to create a background that’s expensive and more difficult to transport than muslin, yet many companies make canvas backdrops and the selection is impressive.
The advantages of using a canvas backdrop are subjective: Because paint is hand brushed onto the canvas colors tend to be more intense. Less subjective is the fact that because the background is perfectly flat a canvas backdrop is consistent from one photograph to the next. This is important to shooters photographing corporate employees over time so the background always looks the same, no matter when it was made.
Photographers committed to a traditional portraiture style feel canvas gives a more formal look but you can’t always tell by looking. The image (above left) uses the hand-painted Carbonite muslin background from Silverlake Photo.
Today, I use muslin and Colorsmack backdrops but for many years schlepped canvas backdrops and set them up in locations as diverse as a client’s living room or at convention centers for on-location portraits. I have no doubt that my old canvas backgrounds are still out there somewhere working hard for another photographer.
Joe is the author of “Posing for Portrait & Glamour Photography” which is available at your friendly neighborhood bookstore or Amazon.com.