Shoot Like You're In A Pro Studio By... Making Your Own Digital Backdrops

All Photos © 2004, Howard Millard, All Rights Reserved

In the real world, as often as not, there'll be a problem with your background. In the precise spot where the light is right on your subject, the background might be too light, too dark, too cluttered, or you might even see the proverbial telephone pole sprouting from your subject's head. You needn't worry, though, since you already have a rich library of potential backgrounds available using the image-editing software that you already own. Whether your taste in backdrops run indoors to studio seamless paper, canvas fabrics, or high tech abstracts--or outdoors to a cloud dotted sky or a finely textured slab of granite, it's not difficult to create these effects digitally with editing tools and filters. I've used Adobe Photoshop CS for these examples, but other image editors have similar options.

Before you start, make copies of your original files and work on the duplicates. Also, make your background an appropriate size for the subject image that you will later place over it. You can do this by checking Image>Image size. You'll want to make your background the same size or larger than the subject and with the same resolution. Since these examples were created for magazine reproduction, I used a resolution of 300dpi. If you're making images for the web or for display on-screen only, you can use 72dpi. For ink jet prints, try 180 to 240dpi. Higher resolution, of course, means larger file sizes, and some filters will perform fairly slow on big files. In all cases, though, decide what size your final image will be, because the look of the effects can be quite different at different sizes.

"Abstracting" Your Original
There may already be a great background hiding in one of your original photos, especially if it's colorful and your goal is an abstract backdrop with tones and hues similar to those in the original. In the first example here, I began with a shot of colorful pink and yellow flowers, #1. Flowers and gardens are great for a variety of colors, but you can also use sunsets, toys, fabrics--literally anything.


Open a duplicate of your photo (Image>duplicate) and run a strong blur filter on it. Any blur filter will do, with each yielding a different look. Try Gaussian blur, then test radial blur with both zoom and spin options. Here, I first chose Filter>Blur>Motion Blur which brings up the dialog box shown in #2. At the bottom of the box, I maxed out the distance setting to 999. With the preview box checked, play with the distance slider to see how different settings affect your particular image.


Another great feature of the Motion Blur filter is that you can adjust the angle of the streaking motion it generates--either type in values in the Angle box, or drag the line inside the circle to the right of the Angle value to change the direction. This control makes it easy to generate streaks in whatever direction you need, whether your photo is vertical or horizontal. Here I set the angle to 34Þ, giving me a dynamic diagonal angle of streaked colors, #3. After applying the filter, the colors seemed a bit duller than in the original, so I pumped up the color and contrast with Levels (Image>Adjustments> Levels), but you could also use Curves or even Brightness/Contrast to accomplish this.


Next I tried Filter>Blur>Radial Blur, #4, with an amount setting of 10, Blur method: Spin and Quality: Good. The spinning result is seen in #5. For a different look starting again with the same original, I chose Radial Blur, but this time with an amount of 40 and the Zoom Blur method, #6. The dramatic zoom effect of this filter is seen in #7. In these last two examples, you would want to place your subject, a close-up of a flower or a portrait, perhaps, in the center of the image, so that the background would remain abstract.