The Portable Windbreak Backdrop

One of the common mistakes in photography is not taking the background into account when composing pictures.  There are many examples of this; a search for “examples of bad photography composition” turns up many examples.  A common problem with backgrounds is that they are often times too visually cluttered; it can be difficult for the eye to clearly see the subject.  Other times, objects in the background appear to be growing out of the subject’s head.  While this can be amusing (I have see examples of this in newspapers, where the recipient of some award or another was standing right in front of a mounted deer or moose head, resulting in the antlers growing out of the subject’s head), most times this is not wanted.

There are, of course, various strategies to deal with cleaning up a poor background.  The easiest is to simply move the subject or the camera or perhaps both.  Find an angle where the background is simple and clean:  a blank wall, looking up at the sky, looking down on the ground; there are a lot of options.  Failing that, the next easiest is to physically clean up the background.  Remove distracting clutter – frames from walls, piles of leaves, whatever is in the background that can draw your eye’s attention away from the subject.  If you can’t do that, you can blur the background.  Open up the aperture on the camera as much as possible, increase the distance from the subject to the background as much as possible, shoot with a telephoto lens: these are all techniques for blurring the background.  With a background blurred and the subject in focus, the eye usually has no problems picking out the subject.

Sometimes, however, none of these tricks work.  Shooting a wildflower in the middle of an open field is such an example.  Sometimes you can make changing the angle work – get down real low, for example, and shoot the flower against the sky.  But many – if not most – of the time, the flower wants to be shot from a particular angle, and there are various background elements that get in the way.  Perhaps it’s a horizon line.  Perhaps its a fence.  Perhaps it’s a parking lot or a house.  Whatever it is, it’s something you don’t want in the shot, even with a real soft focus.

Studio photographers use backdrops.  I myself have a portable studio backdrop system.  Portable, however, is a relative term.  It is large, unwieldy, and takes some time to set up.  It is not something easily moved once set up.  It serves its purpose and it serves its purpose well, but it is not a panacea for all backdrop needs.  This led me to creating my portable windbreak backdrop.

Why windbreak?  The idea came from a video on photography I was watching, where the photographer brought an old fish tank with him into the field to take pictures of flowers.  The fish tank had an end removed, so you could set it upright on the ground over a flower.  The tank was lined on three sides with black velvet.  What used to be the top of the tank was positioned facing the photographer; this allowed him to reach in with the camera he was using and take close-up pictures of the flower.

An aquarium used like this has several advantages:  you can get a nice, crisp background; you can put a diffuser or even a white bed sheet over the top to soften harsh sunlight; and the aquarium works as a windbreak, helping to keep the subject still in slight breezes.  There are a few drawbacks, however.  Aquariums tend to be both heavy and bulky.  They also run the risk of having their glass break, which is problematic for many reasons.  Additionally, a tool like this is a single-purpose tool; combined with the bulk and weight, it is the first thing I would leave at home when planning a photo shoot with unknown parameters (the “go-there-and-see-what-there-is-to-take-pictures-of” type photo shoot).

I liked the idea, though, and set out to try to improve on it.  What I wound up with was something that is lighter and less bulky, and can serve several purposes.  It is not as heavy, meaning it can’t stand up to as strong a breeze as an aquarium can, but it can still serve as a windbreak for light breezes.

Here are step-by-step instructions for building your own.  First, gather the materials.  Here’s the material list I used:

  • one tri-fold display board
  • one 15-yard roll of metallic silver Duck Tape.
  • one 15-yard roll of metallic gold Duck Tape.
  • one 20-yard roll of black Duck Tape
  • one piece of black stretch velvet, roughly 3’x4′
  • two yards of black Gorilla tape (optional)
  • Spray adhesive
  • stapler
The key materials assembled and ready to go.

Once I got everything together, I first I reinforced the outside of the folds with tape.  I used the Gorilla Tape, but regular Duck Tape should work fine.  Put the tape on while the folds are closed – you don’t want to tape the tri-fold open!

The reinforced folds

I next used metallic-gold Duck Tape to cover the back of the tri-fold.  Start on one side and work toward the other, with very minimal overlap of the tape.

Applying the gold tape to the back face

I did the same thing with the outsides of the two folds, but used metallic-silver Duck Tape.  This will be easier if you start in the middle (at the gap) and work toward either edge – that way you don’t accidentally tape the trifold closed. Note that , for both the gold and the silver, you do not need to make the edges even; they will be covered by edging later.  If they are too long, you can trim them down once the entire face is covered and then just run along the edge with scissors.

The outside front faces.

On the inside of the folds, once more with the Duck Tape.  This time, I used black.  I started at on of the folds and worked out to the edge.

Applying the black tape.

I then got a piece of velvet and lined the main inside panel with that.  First I stapled along one edge.  Then I applied spray adhesive to the cardboard and carefully stretched the velvet over that, taking care to smooth out any wrinkles as I went.  I stapled along the sides as I went as well, to make sure that it stayed where I wanted.  Finally, I tacked down the final edge with staples.  The staples are there to keep the velvet in place until the glue dries – the glue is going to be the main holding power.

Putting down the velvet.

All edges were then covered with black Duck Tape., including the long sides of the velvet.  This covered up all the staples and sealed the edges against moisture.

Edging

Note that most edges are sealed by wrapping the duck tape around the edge, so that it is half on one face and half on the other.  You can’t do this with the edging on the side of the velvet – it’s going to be full-width duck tape unless you take the time to sip the tape in half lengthwise.

The final result is a device that is light weight and folds flat, making it easy to transport.  It is fairly easy to throw it in the trunk when loading camera gear, and it’s no big deal if you don’t use it.  When closed, the gold and silver sides can also be used as reflectors to bounce a little bit of light on to a subject.

How is this used?  I went out and found a flower to demonstrate this with.  First, I took a shot of the flower (Pennsylvania Phlox) without the backdrop.  The result was not bad; the background was nicely blurred, even at f/14.  But there was a little breeze blowing the flowers around a bit, making autofocusing difficult, as what I was focusing on kept moving out of frame.  Also, the flower doesn’t pop out at the viewer; the diagonal line of the stem hides in with the background.

Pennsylvania Phlox, with field and woods in background

I then set up the background.  It was simple to do; just open up the tri-fold and position it behind the subject.  The following image shows the set-up; camera, tripod, cable release, and backdrop.

The Backdrop in action

The resulting photograph is much crisper.  The entire flower pops out from the background, including the stem and leaves that anchor the bottom half of the photo.

Pennsylvania Phlox, with controlled background.

And that’s it.  Fairly simple to build and even simpler to use.