As a portrait photographer, I've always wanted to own an Oliphant or Schmidli backdrop. The beautiful, organic, textured backdrops with lots of character contrasts starkly against the cheap, cheesy backdrops that you might find in a mall photo studio, or in something like your 3rd grade class photo. The problem is, these beautiful drops come at a hefty cost. The niche backdrop studios usually operate on a rental model, with rentals costing hundreds of dollars — which, unless you have the budget for your project, is a bit cost-prohibitive for most photographers — let alone the cost to purchase such a backdrop.
There are some newcomers to the market with more affordable pricing (most notably Gravity Backdrops), but I figured I'd give DIY'ing my own canvas backdrop a try and seeing how it fits into my work before considering spending more money on a backdrop from a reputable studio.
I begun by watching a ton of YouTube videos and reading excellent blog posts (see a collection of other resources at the end of this post) from people who have already attempted this, to get an idea of how involved the process would be, and maybe gather some tips to make this go as smooth as possible.
I wanted to "test" the concept first, as cheaply as possible, so I headed to Lowe's to pick up the essential supplies — a canvas drop cloth, and some rollers and brushes. I already had some old leftover paint from a few years ago that I used in the house, so I thought it'd be the cheapest way to go — If it didn't turn out well, I wouldn't be out too much cash.
I got home, ripped open the canvas, and......there were seams. The 9 x 6' canvas drop I purchased from Lowe's had a giant seam running down the middle. Which, isn't too much of a problem, but having to Photoshop it out in every photo could get annoying. So, I furiously googled and came across this blog post from a home decorator that noted that Home Depot canvas drop cloths were seamless. Of course, I could have ordered one from Amazon, but I was impatient and wanted to get this project rolling quickly.
I was able to purchase all of the below items at my local Home Depot:
- Everbilt 6' x 9' 10 oz.Canvas Drop Cloth - $14
- 9" Paint Roller Covers - $12
- 9" Sponge Texture Roller Cover - $11
- Plastic Sheeting - $3-5
- Roller Frames, Extension Handles, Paint Trays & Liners - $30
- 1 Gallon KILZ PVA Primer - $11
- Paint - Varies ($20-50)
- Total: ≈$100-150
Or, if you prefer Amazon, I've complied an Amazon shopping list.
You can save on paint and just get the cheapest base offered I paid about $20 for a gallon of my base color, and about $11 for the quarts of my accent/texture colors. Wal-Mart even has gallons for about $9, helping you save on paint costs.
I ended up making two canvas drops over the course of a week — The first was a "test run", to get a feel for the process, with the intent of spending as little money as possible — paint can get expensive, so I elected to use old paint I had in my garage (that I used for bedrooms), to help cut costs — I had a gallon of a pastel blue color, some beige, and a bunch of samples of paint in different blues and browns. Below ended up being (somewhat) close to the color palette I had to work with for the first canvas, based on the leftover paint I already had.
Color theory is incredibly important here. I would suggest gathering inspiration for objects, places, or other backdrops you like, taking that into Adobe Color — a free tool for generating color palettes according to different color theories or families (which is also incredibly useful for photography and color toning) , and creating a palette of colors and supporting colors that you will use in your backdrop. Pre-planning and visualizing your backdrop before you even start will yield greater results through a considered and cohesive color set.
I learned how important prepping and priming the canvas is during this first test — in short, it went horribly. I had not purchased any PVA primer or gesso to prep the canvas on this first run, so almost all of the paint I used just soaked into and through the canvas, and it wasn't taking paint very well. In addition, I had to use MUCH more paint than necessary, because it just kept soaking through the canvas.
BUT, the test backdrop photographed beautifully. Here's a quick test shot I snapped after hanging the test drop up after it had dried:
The beautiful thing about hand painted backdrops is that they photograph differently depending on how it's lit (or not lit) — I can turn my first "ugly" light blue background into a very saturated light blue, or a very nice cool grey — all by changing how — and how much — light falls on it.
This gave me some confidence that the next one would turn out well, too. In the next "real" attempt, I had purchased the primer and prepped the canvas correctly.
First, you'll need to apply at least 2 coats of PVA or gesso to the canvas in a 3:1 Water:PVA/gesso mix to seal it and prep it for painting. Otherwise, as I learned, the paint will just seep through and require much more paint to cover the canvas. Let the primer dry between coats. I ended up priming my drop cloth with three coats over the course of two days — the last coat was a 2:1 mix of Water:PVA. Fans will help speed the drying process.
Next, you'll want to apply your base color — for this, i'd recommend at least a gallon of your chosen color. You won't need too much of your accent colors, so even a sample from the paint counter or at most a quart of your chosen accent colors will do. Roll on the base color with a roller — for my first coat, I rolled it on straight and let it dry; subsequent coats, I cut with about a 1:1 mix of water to paint to help stave off drying process and give a sort of "wash" to the coat.
After the second "wash" of a base coat, I started incorporating secondary colors into the backdrop. I watered down the paint a little bit, and rolled it on at random in different parts of the backdrop. I then took a damp mop and mopped the canvas to wash it with the other color(s). I waited for this coat to dry before evaluating it again and seeing what it needed.
Finally, I took other wash/secondary colors, thinned the paint a tiny bit and lightly rolled it on with the sea-sponge roller cover. This allowed me to create texture on the canvas with different colors. Go nuts here. Create a color palette, and just see what happens.
When you're done, let it dry at least overnight, and use fans if possible, to help the paint dry fully.
Hanging & Care of Your New Backdrop
There are a number of different way to hang your backdrop — The easiest, and the way I hung it for my tests — is with simple A-clamps from the hardware store, clamped to a background stand with a cross bar — These are essential tools for photographers; I have them in all different sizes for everything from clamping lights and backdrops, to tiny ones for wardrobe. The best place to get them, if you have one near you, is Harbor Freight; 2-3" spring clamps are only $2 or $3 bucks a piece, and you can never have enough.
Gaff taping the backdrop to the PVC pipe is the best way I've found so far to hang, transport, and store these backdrops. Having the drop on a PVC pipe allows you to easily hang it from a background stand the same way you would any roll of seamless, and allows it to hang evenly without any wrinkles. For storage and transport, you don't want to crumple or fold these backdrops as over time, the paint can crack or flake off, so the PVC pipe allows you to roll it up for easy transport and safe storage. I haven't done this to my own drops yet, but I plan to do this.
Final Thoughts & Tips
- The beauty of this project is there really isn't a right or wrong way — there's no "real" or "scientific" way (well, I'm sure there is, but for someone with no formal painting experience or training, experimenting and calling it "art" will have to do) experiment and create your own textures with different items, rollers or brushes.
- One important thing I noticed is that the paint will dry darker (or lighter) than it appears with the watered down paint. Occasionally, I would wash a much lighter paint color over the entire canvas and think I ruined it and would have to cover it with the base color again, only to come back after it had dried and see that there was a very subtle effect overall. Take your time.
- Know when to stop — I spent way more time than I should have on painting the second backdrop. I found that I was constantly chasing "more texture" that would show up in photos. If I had continued, I would have never stopped and kept slopping more paint into the canvas looking for something I'm not sure of. When there's enough paint and color on the canvas...just....stop.
- In the end, even DIY'ing your own backdrop costs a decent chunk of change. Prior to this project, I never understood how and why backdrops of this type are so expensive to purchase, but the outstanding results, coupled with the experience of the painters from the big backdrop houses are worth their weight in gold, and I can now appreciate how much work and experience is put into the thousand-dollar-plus backdrops, and now understand why they cost so much to purchase or rent.
And with that, for just about $100, you can have a fun weekend project and a new hand-painted (by yourself!) canvas backdrop to use for your portraits.
Now go out and make yourself one (or two)!
Help us out!
If this has helped you in any way, or if you have any questions or comments, leave 'em down below, or shoot us an e-mail! And, as always, if you're thinking about buying some gear, use our Amazon links throughout this article or down below; it helps us create content that you like to read or helps you out, and it costs you nothing — win/win!