Including Pro-Tips from School Photographer Tim MacDonald
Tim and Sara MacDonald started their school photography business in 2010 when they were 28 years old. They started with two schools and one youth league and now work with over 50 elementary and middle schools, as well as 30 youth sport organizations. Read more about them at the end of this article.
School photography is of course all about the child. Every school photographer wants to capture that magical moment for parents to remember forever. All children are unique, and so every photo should also be unique. Yet for schools, there ought to be an element of uniformity running through to emphasise that community atmosphere and to showcase your own particular style. Backdrops can be a great way of linking hundreds of photos together neatly and subtly, while still giving the child enough room to express their individuality.
Where to start though? There are many different backdrop options to choose from, and each adds a different atmosphere to your school photography. We’ve broken down the various different types of backdrops to help you pick the right one to match your school photography style.
What’s What in Backdrops
All-In-One Vs. Separated
An all-in-one background does exactly what it sounds like; one backdrop that includes a background and a floor. These are ideal for school photographers that need to be especially mobile, as they are usually easier to transport and set up, being free from cumbersome loose parts. It also means that you won’t need to worry about matching various different styles across backgrounds and floor pieces. Your all-in-one backdrop will have a seamless look that complements your school photography perfectly. If the floor is likely to be prominently in the frame, an all-in-one is your best option.
So, the downsides? We all know kids can be messy sometimes, and the floor of an all-in-one backdrop can be difficult to clean, as it can’t be separated from the background. If your school photography often includes much younger kids, having a separate vinyl floor component is worth considering to avoid wasting unnecessary time on long cleaning jobs.
In the same way that an all-in-one offers a sense of uniformity to your backdrops, some school photographers might find it restrictive. Do you like to experiment with your style regularly? Then having multiple separate floor and background parts might suit better, giving you the freedom to mix and match according to your style for that particular session.
Price wise, all-in-ones can be slightly pricier than buying separate parts, but seeing as you would likely need to buy multiple pieces to construct your own backdrop, the costs will probably even out in the end. Think about how much time you generally have to set up for a school photography session – if time is always tight, an all-in-one could save you a precious few seconds. But if aesthetic flexibility is your main concern, browse through your separate floor and background options.
Tim MacDonald’s opinion on all-in-one backgrounds
All-in-one backdrops can work in a preschool environment, where you are searching for multiple poses and including full length and close up pictures. I always do up close or 3/4’s, so never use full length backdrops unless proms, formals, or father/daughter events.
Plain Vs. Decorative
Once you know your desired structure, you can start considering your aesthetic. The traditional plain background is always a trusty choice – classic, understated, and unlikely to draw attention away from the child. Also, having a simple block color or a clean pattern will reduce the chance of any clashes with children’s clothing.
If you’re looking to add a more modern splash to your school photography, there are also a wealth of decorative options that add some creative flair while still staying professional. For example, a fake room can add a classy edge to elevate your photography. Fake walls on an all-in-one backdrop can also add depth and dimension to images, even when lacking in space. For a themed shoot, such as sports or for a special event, you could even tailor your backdrop to the event; a sports stadium for team pictures or a festive scene for seasonal events.
A good compromise between the two options can also be to opt for a plain background and collect a few elements that can be attached to it. Having strips that look like skirting boards to attach to the bottom of a plain backdrop creates a similar depth as a full 3D backdrop. You could create various seasonal scenes from one backdrop by fixing snowflakes for winter or Easter eggs for spring.
For real flexibility, a green screen can offer you practically unlimited options. As well as of course being able to impose different colours and simple backgrounds, you can also get creative for more detailed backgrounds. This can be ideal for very specific occasions, such as particular holidays or even sports pictures. For example, you can pose a football team picture on the pitch, even if it’s not available in real life
Sports in particular can benefit from green screen functionality. If you’re shooting various different teams in one day, having to change a set or even just a backdrop loses you valuable time. With green screen, all you need to change is the prop the child is holding, if you’re including that, and then add the appropriate background afterwards
Having a digitally created background also saves you both time and money. There is no need to scout out locations or pay money for intricate sets – with a green screen you can have it all with just a little bit of handy editing work
It also offers the chance for parents to have the same picture of their child, but with different backgrounds. This could then also help you increase sales since you are giving the parents more options to remember their favourite images of their children. So long as the child doesn’t wear clothes of the same colour, you can’t go wrong!
Size It Right
Space is often tight on school photography sessions. So you need to make sure you have the right sized backdrop. Generally, 8 ft by 8 ft is a suitable size, but if you’re also often accommodating groups, you might want to scale up to 8 by 10 ft.
Just as with buying extra decorative pieces, some backdrops can be made to be extendable or have extra floor space attached. Spending some extra time and money on these customizable options can often enable you to take on a greater diversity of jobs in the future. However, Tim’s advice is to also try and make your backdrops as portable as possible. He says that pop-ups have become great and are easily set up with one stand and a clamp.
Keep It Natural
If you’re lucky, the perfect backdrop might even be directly under your nose. If the weather is good, don’t be afraid to head outside and use the school itself as a freely available background. Be sure to test a few images out first to make sure you find the perfect lighting. Make sure you try different angles and settings, so you have everything ready to go. Once you hit that sweet spot it can really add some magic.
When the weather or other circumstances push you inside, take a quick look around or ask the school in question if there is a suitable space. Exposed brick, stage curtains, or plainly-painted walls can all work well with the right angles.
Tim MacDonald says:
“I have never shot a school portrait with a provided purchased backdrop. We shoot 90% of our schools outside, posing students by a tree and use the schools landscape as the background. We shoot 1/200 at f5 and background goes completely out of focus. You provide a professional quality portrait for the parent at a low price that the parents cannot create themselves. We made custom backgrounds with an outdoor image. We dropped it out of focus a bit to give it that same look you get when shooting outside. Always use our 70–200 mm lens for the compression.
If for any reason we go indoors, we use our custom outdoor backdrop or keep it simple with a clean modern look. And don’t be afraid to find depth – get away from f8! Experiment with shooting the subject further from the background than normal. Try six feet maybe and lower the f stop. It gives it nice depth that other school photogs aren’t doing. And if you do create your own backdrop, drop it out of focus a bit, it can make a world of difference. As far as lighting with our outdoor set up we use off camera flash with either a beauty dish or foldable softbox for portability. Bring weights!”
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Where To Buy
So, you have your ideal backdrop in mind. Now is the time to make that a reality. There are various options for purchasing or even making your own backdrop. Depending on what you need, follow our strategies to make sure all goes smoothly for your backdrop creation.
Leave It To The Pros
For a polished and high-quality backdrop, you will likely want to buy from a trusted supplier. You don’t always need to break the bank, but do browse around to establish a budget, so you know that your money is going where it’s needed. If you are buying a more niche and creative backdrop that you might only use every now and then, it might be wise to find a reasonably-priced option.
On the other hand, one you use every day might require a bigger budget, to make sure the quality can stand up to everyday wear and tear. Here are some of our favourite options to suit a range of budgets and styles.
- If you’re unsure whether you prefer creative or simple, all-in-one or separate, Etsy has it all. As a marketplace site, the prices can also be very competitive, and sellers often offer customizable options to suit your needs. However, you should also be careful not to be blinded by a seemingly good deal – check reviews and ratings from other buyers to make sure that you don’t waste your money on a sub-par backdrop.
- Kate Backdrop is a more specialized online platform that caters to practically every taste, from simple textured backgrounds to ornate and fantastical themed backdrops. If you really want to add some luxury to a shoot, they also uniquely supply hand-painted canvases for a higher price. Although likely too heavy for a standard school photography session, for a special occasion or private shoot, it could add some extra value to your services.
- Savage Universal is perfect for simple and lightweight backdrops. If you are often on the move, then look no further. They are also particularly well-suited for collapsible backgrounds, ideal for if you prefer separate parts to your backdrops but still want to remain relatively mobile. With various different fabric options at affordable prices, you will be sure to find the right fit for regular school photography sessions.
- Looking for something with more flair? Backdrop Outlet has you covered. With the ability to shop by theme, it is also perfect for finding a specialized backdrop, such as for seniors or a sports session. From faux windows to natural landscapes, whatever creative plan you have in mind, they will likely have the right fit.
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Harness Your Inner DIY
At the end of the day, a backdrop is often no more than a large piece of material. If your needs aren’t too complex or you have a particular knack for hands-on projects, it is entirely possible to make something yourself and save yourself some money. Hardware and fabric stores sell large amounts of materials, from vinyl to canvas, cotton to polyester, for remarkably cheap.
Tailor it yourself and affix to a clothing rail or hang from a loose shower rail, and you have a makeshift photography backdrop. If you can’t find the perfect pattern or colour, consider even going for plain white and investing an afternoon with a can of paint to perfect your vision. If you’re not an instinctive DIY-er and need someone to talk you through the process more carefully, this tutorial shows you every step of the way.
Tim MacDonald says:
“I urge everyone to either create their own or choose a unique backdrop (Keep it natural, not too crazy). Start branding your company with your style. Backgrounds play a huge part in that.”
Sharing Is Caring
Want to avoid spending too much money but also not confident in your DIY skills? There are various opportunities to find secondhand backdrops. Take a look in local photography communities, such as memberships in the area or Facebook groups. Some photographers, not just school ones, change up their style and find themselves with obsolete equipment. That might be perfect for you. eBay is another obvious place to scout out secondhand dynamite. But just as with Etsy, be sure to check reviews before you buy to avoid potential scams.
Some photographers are even open to sharing less costly equipment like simple backdrops amongst each other for free for the short-term. If you have a single shoot that requires something specific, you could try and ask around in your community to see if you can borrow something suitable. You might even have something that you can lend in return. Online school photography communities can sometimes benefit from communal use.
With these options and tips available for you, we hope you’ll be able to create the perfect backdrop to suit your school photography.
Be sure to share your backdrop plans in the comments on our related Facebook post, or tag us in your images on social media!