Background Holder on a Budget

I love using seamless paper for a background. I have lots of different ways that I use seamless paper and I always keep plenty of different lengths and colors on hand. Over the years I found that the papers I use the most are my 53″ white, 53″ black and 53″ grey seamless papers. They are perfect for product shoots and they make a great background on portrait shoots. The 53″ length is a great size for a single person or a couple (even though you may need to fix the edges in Photoshop) and you can easily set it up by yourself. 107″ wide paper rolls are the ultimate, especially for large groups, but they can be a bit difficult to take out to locations. I use 107″ rolls of paper but I usually shoot individuals and couples so 53″ wide has always worked fine for my location work.

My favorite thing about 53″ rolls of seamless paper (besides it’s portability) is that they’re crazy cheap. 12 yards of white seamless paper runs about $25 from B&H photo and I use white paper a lot. With a roll of white paper you can create a white, grey, black or colored background (depending on how you light it) so it’s super versatile.

But just having rolls of paper won’t do you much good if you don’t have a way to put it up.

There’s some really killer background holders available but they can be a bit pricy. The least expensive I’ve seen is about $100 and that’s kind of a big investment if you’re just starting out. If you want a top quality background holder be prepared to spend well over $200.

But I found a solution years ago that I still use to this day and it cost me less than $15 (but I use some of the light stands I already own). It’s a do-it-yourself project that will take you about a day to put together (if you paint the parts black like I do) and it looks reasonably professional. This post was inspired by my good friend (and the man who brings us Cheap Shots) Larry Becker.

Start with a trip to the local Home Depot (or any other home improvement store) and head straight to the electrical department. They should have pre-cut pieces of 1/2″ diameter steel electrical conduit that are 5 feet long for less than $2. If they don’t I’m sure there’s someone there that can cut you a 5 foot piece. This 5 foot long piece of steel will be the cross bar for your backdrop holder. It will be silver but if you want it black you can buy a can of flat black spray paint for about $1. The 5′ length is perfect for 53″ rolls of paper.

Next you need to go to the area that has all the connectors and adaptors for the electrical conduit. Keep an eye out for the 90 degree adaptors for 1/2″ conduit. Here’s what they look like:

These are also silver but I painted mine black to match my stands. They cost about $4.50 each (for a total of $9 when you buy two). Here’s the cool thing about these right angle adaptors. They fit perfectly onto the top of just about any light stand I’ve ever seen. Here’s a look at how it fits on top of one of my 8′ light stands.

Don’t expect it to be super tight because you don’t want it to be super tight. You want it to be stable but not tight. The reason you want it loose is to make raising and lowering the background easier. When you’re setting up by yourself you’ll be raising the background up one side at a time. Having it a little loose lets you raise one side a foot or so then switch over to the other side to move it up to meet the first side (and repeat until you get the background to the height you want). Having the right angle adaptors a little loose makes the process a lot easier but the crossbar is still very safe and solid when it’s in its final position.

Here’s a quick peek at the crossbar (conduit) inserted into a right angle adaptor that is resting on one of my light stands (this shot was taken before the parts were painted black).

And it’s really just that simple. The 53 inch wide rolls of paper fit right into the trunk of my car and the cross bar/right angle adaptors are cheap enough to buy three and leave one pre-installed on each 53″ roll of paper that I use (white, grey and black) for quick paper changes. My total investment ends up being about $75 for a single complete setup (when I factor in the two 8′ light stands that cost about $30 each). And if you’re ever on a shoot and you realize that you forgot your background holder (but you still have light stands) you can save the day by finding a local Home Depot to buy what you need in an emergency.

One more thing – don’t forget to use some sand bags (to keep things safe) and some gaffers tape (to tape the paper to the floor). Also, keep a philips screwdriver handy since you’ll want to tighten the set screw that will hold the 5′ long conduit to the right angle adaptors (otherwise the 5′ piece of conduit may fall out and the paper roll might hit your subject).

Here’s another quick look at the background holder in use:

If you look close you can also see that I’m using a few small spring clips to prevent the paper from unrolling. I keep a ton of these little guys with me because they are so handy for all sorts of things (like fixing clothing, flagging a light and stopping a roll of paper from unrolling). The big spring clamps cost about $1 from Home Depot and the smaller ones are also very inexpensive.

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