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There are lots of options when it comes to choosing a background whether its used on location or in studio. Some of the classic photo backgrounds are made from muslin or canvas. Muslin is a closely woven unbleached or white cloth that is produced from corded cotton yarn. It breathes well and is a good choice for clothing meant for hot, dry climates but what has endeared it to photographers is that many kinds of dyes can be applied to it and because of its light weight is easily compressed into a small space making it ideal for location photography and storage. As the driver of a MINI Cooper this space saving feature has great value to me.
One of the advantages of muslin over canvas is that its a less expensive material, so theres no question that muslin provides good value for the thrifty photographer. Muslin backgrounds are also easier to transport and can be stuffed in a bag and tossed in your cars trunk. For a different style than the last time you used a particular background, a muslin backdrop can be draped to provide a whole new look. The inexpensive muslin backdrop in the above photo is a Belle Drape background from Adorama.
Canvas backdrops are rugged but because of their heavier weight are best suited for permanent locations. They can be expensive but the surface lets the artist produce realistic looking backdrops, although more and more scenic muslin backgrounds are being produced to challenge that assertion. They can also be large, with a 10×10 foot background being required to produce coverage for full-length portraits of two people. Canvas backgrounds must be kept rolled between uses or when transporting to avoid creasing the material. All these factors combine to create a background that is expensive and more difficult to transport than muslin, yet many companies make canvas backdrops today and the selection of available designs is unsurpassed.
The advantages of using a canvas backdrop are heavily subjective but here are a few. Because painting is hand brushed onto the canvas the colors tend to be more intense. Less subjective is the fact that because the background is perfectly flat a canvas backdrop is more consistent from one photograph to the next. This is especially important to wedding photographers as well as those shooters photographing corporate employees over time so the background always looks the same, no matter when the portrait was made. Some photographers, especially those committed to a traditional portraiture style feel canvas gives a more formal look.
A well-painted canvas drop will last many years if well cared for and while today, I exclusively use muslin backgrounds but for many years I schlepped large canvas backdrops and set them up in locations as diverse as a clients living room or at convention centers for on-location corporate portraits. I have no doubt that my old canvas backgrounds are still out there somewhere working for another photographer.
As with everything else in photography, you pays yer money and makes yer cherce. Paper or plastic? Canvas or Muslin. Its up to you and your credit card company.
Joe is the author of the upcoming book, Studio Photography Anywhere (http://bit.ly/esapJx) coming soon from Amherst Media.
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