While many photographers love the vibrancy of the outdoors, the studio has become something of a sanctuary --a redoubt where amateurs and weekend warriors armed with DSLRs can't penetrate. Anyone can shoot outdoors (shooting well, of course, is another matter), but not every photographer can deck out a studio with immersive, 3-D scenery, props, and lighting.
Backgrounds are a "distinctively different" means for a studio to draw a bright line between themselves and their less-equipped competitors, says Henry Oles, founder of Virtual Backgrounds.
Take railroads, says Larry Hersberger, GM, Back to Basics Design Works. It's illegal to photograph a subject on a railroad, yet railways are iconic American images (at least, the ones with boxcars are; Amtrak, not so much). A fully decked-out rail scene lets the studio tap into that iconic imagery while remaining "clean, safe, and legal," he says.
Back to Basics
Backgrounds are a lot like clothing, observes David Maheu of Backgrounds by Maheu. If a hot photographer touts the virtue of a certain style or look, it takes off. Yet the economic downturn has also imposed a fashion of its own.
"We're finding that studios are going back to basics," says Jay Gupta, owner, Backdrop Outlet. In a recessed economy, "they need to cater to just about everybody, and they go back to what has always worked for them." This desire to play it safe and cater to as wide an audience as possible has led to more conservative, traditional muslin background choices, he says: "It's grays, blues, and browns."
The U.S. market has always leaned toward primary colors: basic black, white, and gray, observes Angie Kendall, a graphic designer at Savage Paper. This year, they've seen more interest in chromakey colors. "I think the interest in YouTube-style videos has helped promote that look," Kendall ventures.
The influx of newly minted pro photographers lured by the lower barriers to entry provided by digital has also driven demand for muted backgrounds. "First- and second-time buyers tend to be looking for basic designs," Gupta says. When the good times return, or as new entrants gain experience, studios will get experimental again, he adds.
Leaner times have also motivated studios to buy more durable backgrounds, Kendall says: "We've had a good response to our vinyl-based backgrounds. They're easy to clean and reuse." Hand-painted canvas gives studios a muslin look but in a more permanent, durable fashion, she says.
Despite the economic malaise, now is not the time to retrench, cautions Hersberger: "The line between the professional and amateur is blurring all the time. The less a studio invests in what sets them apart from the amateur--and backgrounds are a part of that--the more that line blurs, the more damage that ultimately gets done to their business. You can save yourself into poverty."
Indeed, in the face of the downturn, many background suppliers are increasing their portfolio. The 2009 Denny catalog added over 150 new backdrops and props, says Debra McKean, VP of marketing.
When it comes to backgrounds, one size does not fit all.-"Customers appreciate variety," Oles says. Alongside a large stock of virtual backgrounds, Oles notes that more photographers are customizing their own virtual backgrounds. A high-school sports photographer, for instance, can snap a shot of a crowded football stadium and use that as the setting for team portraits. Unlike green screens or Photoshop, virtual backgrounds give a more realistic, immersive effect and don't consume as much time to produce, Oles says.
"I think a lot of photographers are into the clean look," McKean says. School photographers continue to be attracted to abstract and geometrically patterned backgrounds, and outdoor scenery has also proven popular this year, she adds. The company's textured FlexTex backgrounds have also been in demand, she says.
For children's portraits, many studios are interested in creating a fairy tale-like setting, McKean notes. Backgrounds that re-create a Tolkien-esque fantasy garden are increasingly popular, but many studios will experiment halfheartedly with these settings only to discover a tepid response from customers, Hersberger says. To make such an otherworldly setting work, studios need to commit to the proper scenery, lighting, sets, and costumes.
Creating the Look
"What does the customer want?" Hersberger says. "They want a magical experience, a timeless experience." Successfully leveraging backgrounds will bring back "the magic of photography," he adds--and bring back business.
In the never-ending arms race against the onslaught from amateur photographers, a studio must deploy the big guns. Backgrounds, sets, props, costumes--anything the amateur can't or won't buy can provide needed differentiation. "Eventually the economy will improve," Oles says. But the competitive market engendered by digital is here to stay.
"A lot of my customers are doing more work in their studios than on location because their customers can't reproduce those set designs, scenery, and fine-art work," Maheu says. Double-sided and modular sets can stretch an investment, Hersberger says: "When I design a set, we're going for timeless looks. Fads are not good investments."
During the 1990s, studios were "buying gigantic systems" to give the illusion of total immersion, Gupta says: "Now, we see people buying smaller props--such as columns or chairs."
Pedestals and posing stools for children remain popular, McKean adds. For customers who do buy larger sets, "grunge," graffiti-laden brick, and urban scenes are in, she notes.
As for costumes, there's less interest in children's attire, but glamour is back, Gupta notes: "The glamour jackets, metallic jackets, and feathered boas" are all making a comeback."