White background photography is timeless. It's a classical contrast of pure potential next to none. And for some platforms like Amazon, it's a requirement.
But it isn't easy to achieve a pure white background without proper lighting. Even if it looks white to your eye, a white background without proper lighting may look gray, blue, or yellow in your final photos.
But where there’s a white background, there’s a way - and we’re making it simple in this how-to!
If your question is how to light a white background with the least amount of spillage and spoilage, keep on reading. We have everything from single to staggered lighting.
How to Light a White Background: The Basics
Natural light is the natural choice because it's free! using a few simple techniques, it can be optimized and utilized for perfect product photography - be it in the studio or at home.
Should you prefer to work with artificial light, remember that it’s more about how you diffuse and direct the light than about selecting the most expensive equipment.
When it comes to artificial light, many professional photographers prefer the intense power provided by external flashes. However, continuous lights are an excellent stepping stone into product photography and may be the only artificial light you ever need.
A word of caution: you may be tempted to use a ring light for food photography. While ring lights are amazing for lighting faces in photos and videos, ring lights aren’t ideal for food photography as the light isn't very diffused and the round shape is more likely than other light types to cause unwanted hotspots or "glare" in your photos.
Ring lights for product photography are just as problematic. If you DO want to try using your ring light, there ARE a few tricks to work around it. Specifically, you can put a pillow case over the light to add an extra layer of diffusion, or place a diffuser in front of the ring light.
What are the best LED lights for product photography?
This is going depend on your budget. Qualities to look for a light "temperature" close to 5500 K. This will produce the most neutral light and prevent your white background from looking blue or yellow. Some LED lights also allow you to adjust the brightness and temperature, which offers better control than non-adjustable ones.
Optimizing your backdrop setup for any light type
The simplest solution to optimize for both natural and artificial lighting for smaller product photography is the Replica Studio.
It’s height-adjustable, mobile, and makes using white backdrops incredibly easy. What’s even better is that you can choose the combination of white Surfaces that are best for your product.
Our recommendation for a perfect white background would be to use the matte All-White Surface as a vertical/upright "wall" and the reflective Gloss White Surface as the horizontal/base Surface. This will give you a pure white scene with incredible reflections of your product. The Studio and Surfaces are sold separately.
The Light Source
Indirect or "soft" light sources are your best bet in creating an even white background. I discuss all the differences between hard and soft light, and how to achieve both, in my natural lighting how-to.
The other key to a perfect white background is using the most neutral light possible. In other words, using light that is as close to white-colored as possible without skewing blue or yellow.
To find the time of day when your light is most neutral, set up a simple scene and take a photo every hour during the times you're available to shoot. Compare the photos and choose the time when your white backdrop looks the whitest and you like the look of the shadows.
To soften and reduce shadows, you can "diffuse" the light. There are many ways to diffuse sunlight, but a simple white sheet over the light source may be all that you need. You can also hang translucent white curtains or use the shear "scrim" that comes in a 5-in-1 reflector set (pictured here).
When using the sun as a natural light source, remember that the color of light changes throughout the day and ranges from blue to yellow. Doing the photo-every-hour test will determine when YOUR light is closest to neutral white.
To further reduce shadows and brighten your white backdrop, use a "reflector". A reflector is anything white you place opposite your light source to reflect light onto the far side of your scene. You can use white foam core, a trifold poster board, or even a white-based Surface like I'm using in this photo. And it doesn't have to be pure white to work. If you own a white-based Surface like White Marble or Subway Tile and aren't using it in your scene, it makes a great reflector too!
Artificial light is a stable and reliable light source that has many benefits over relying on natural light. The goal is to mimic the feel of natural light as much as possible while giving you more control over the brightness and color "temperature" of your shot. Color temperature refers to whether your light is neutral, warm (yellow), or cool (blue).
Artificial Light Types
With an overwhelming choice of lights available, it’s best to have a basic understanding of some main types of lights used in photography.
Continuous lights are often the easiest starting solution for your photographic journey. They plug into the wall and stay on for as long as you have them turned on. This is in contrast to flashes which only go off when you click the shutter of your DSLR camera. LED lights are a type of continuous light and are a good option because they don’t produce a lot of heat and replicate the feeling of natural light.
If you've already tried continuous lighting, use a DSLR camera, and want to take things to the next level, you may want to invest in an external flash. These lights connect wirelessly to your DSLR and flash when you press the shutter. They provide intense power to add brightness and keep your background white and bright.
As mentioned, the intense power provided by a flash is the first choice for a pure white background, but second in line is two 100 watt daylight tungsten bulbs aimed at opposite corners of the frame. By using two lights, you can minimize shadows for Amazon-style product photography. For lifestyle-style product photography (such as you may use for your website), one light placed at the side is a great choice since it produces natural shadows and is easy to setup.
The setup is probably the most important contributing factor to getting a white background.
Even though a carefully placed single light and reflector is sufficient for a small production, you would ideally have three lights if you're trying to create the most professional Amazon-style product photo.
For a three light setup, you'll want to place one above your product pointing downward, one to the left, and one to the right. This ensures that the top, sides, and background are all properly lit, and have the same shadow tone or no shadows at all.
The Distances in Between Lights
The distance from the light to the background is a key factor in perfecting a white background.
The distance between camera and product as well as product and background should be carefully selected.
Unfortunately, this will involve a lot of trial and error since everyone's lights and product are different. But it's good trial and error that will make future shoots smoother and faster. Stand back. Watch. Adjust.
I say "optional" because you DO NOT need to go this far to get a great photo. To really take your photos into the professional realm, though, the background needs to be two to three stops brighter than your product for it to remain white.
In order to do this, you need to measure the exposure information separately - ideally with a handheld light meter. If you don’t have access to a light meter, use the spot meter on your camera, zebra stripe function, or a histogram, but not the LCD screen on your camera. LCD screens are not accurate to what your photo will actually look like and can't be relied upon.
Control the Light with Modifiers
Next up is modifying the light to create the look you want using modifiers. Modifiers include diffusers (including scrims, softboxes, and shoot-through umbrellas), reflectors (including foam core, trifolds, and white-based Surfaces), and flags.
As we discussed above, the scrim from a 5-in-1 reflector set is a great diffuser for natural window light. You can also place it in front of an artificial light soft box for extra diffusion.
Soft boxes are contained fabric boxes that cover an artificial light. The front is made of translucent fabric that diffuses (aka spreads out) light as it passes through. Soft boxes are height adjustable, so you can choose the most comfortable height for your photoshoot. Especially if you use the Replica Studio with your lights!
Shoot-through umbrellas are similar to soft boxes in that light passes through the translucent umbrella to diffuse it, but they aren't enclosed like soft boxes. The downside is that light spills out the sides and reduces its intensity. The upside is that shoot-through umbrellas are usually less expensive than soft boxes.
Some key points on how to use umbrella lights for product photography:
- Make sure that your light source is strong enough
- The light needs to be placed far enough to fill the entire umbrella
- The umbrella light should face the product
Reflectors are any white material used to create ‘fill light’ and can be used to brighten up or bounce light back, like we discussed above. You can also use a black material as an "absorber." Anything black absorbs light and darkens the far side of your scene to intensify shadow.
Flags are any dark material placed in front of your light source to BLOCK unwanted light from hitting your backdrops, thereby preventing uneven lighting and flare. They are most useful for dark backdrops and usually aren't needed for white backdrops photography.
Word of wisdom: Before shooting with artificial light, remember to turn off all other light sources that could interfere with your subject, including blocking out sunlight, so that the lighting is as consistent and controllable as possible. Don't forget about overhead lights or light streaming in from a nearby room.
Now take some test shots and send them over to your computer. Confirm or adjust your lighting to ensure your background is white BEFORE investing time into an entire shoot.
And there you have it: the keys to beautiful product photography using white backgrounds.
Even though a white background may not be quite as easy to use as assumed at first glance, the effort you spend lighting your scene will definitely pay off when you see your final photos!
Once you’ve explored a little, the art of lighting a white background will become second nature. Just make sure you start with the right backdrop.
Did you find our blog helpful? Then consider checking:
- How To Take Pictures At Night
- How To Get Good Lighting For Pictures
- How To Take Low Light Photos
- How To Get Good Lighting For Product Photos
- How To Get A Perfect White Background In Product Photography
- Photo Compositions to Know
- Depth Perfection
- Light + Airy Photography
- Dark + Moody Photography
- Food Styling
- Product + Flat Lay Styling
- Clothing Photography
- Drink Photography: The Splash Technique
- Your Ultimate Photo Resource
- What Color Backdrop Is Best For Photography?