How to Photograph on a White Background – for Dance Portraits

To photograph portraits on a white background, especially for dance photography, you have to make sure the background is not over or under exposed. 

When it comes to photographing dance portraits you will have a variety of outfits and colors ranging from dark to light, so you need to make sure everything is lit properly.

A key benefit of having a white background is: it will make the colors pop and allow you to focus on the subject and not the background.

The light setup and size of background will determine whether you can photograph groups or just individual portraits.

white background header
Here is what I’m going to cover so you have a better understand how to photograph on a white background

    1. Background Material
    2. Over, Under Exposing Background
    3. Light Setup Individual Portraits
    4. Light Setup Group Portraits
    5. Summary 

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1 – Background Material

When it comes to photographing on a white background you can use a couple of different materials. 

    • White Muslin
    • White Cotton
    • White Paper

Using a Muslin background will give you a thicker more durable heavy background, while cotton is a little lighter and less expensive.

dancers group

With both these options, you will have wrinkles so you want to make sure you secure the background to the background stand, as tight as possible with the top and sides. 

You will never be able to completely get the wrinkles out unless you want to spend a lot of time steaming. 

The beauty of using a white background is; if lit properly, all these wrinkles will go away in the image. 

If you use a white paper background, wrinkles will be nonexistent or have very few.

I would recommend using a cotton white background instead of paper, if you are traveling to dance studios. It’s just easier to set up and transport.

2 – Over, Under Exposing Background

Ok, so this is the most important part of photographing on a white background.

If you do this wrong then two things will happen:

    1. Too Bright (Over Exposed) – the subject is hazy and mucky
    2. Too Dark (Under Exposed) – wrinkles will show and background is greyish

When photographing on a white background you will have 2 strobe lights, on both sides, pointing directly at the background.

I would not recommend using an off-camera flash. If you are going to photograph a lot of dancers you want to use a strobe light plugged into a power source, not battery powered. 

The first thing I would recommend is to power off the lights, that you are using for the background.

Properly expose your subject with your two main lights pointed at the dancer


The easiest and non-technical approach, in getting the exposure right for the background, is to lower the power setting on the background strobe lights, to the lowest setting. 

Take a test shot and then preview the image. 

If your background is grey or shows wrinkles, increase the power a little, and repeat until you get the desired results. 

You want to increase the power right to the point where the background is fully lit, white, and you don’t see any wrinkles or shadows. 

I want to make note that you can use a light meter to get a more accurate reading but the easiest way to make adjustments is with the above steps. 

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3 – Light Setup (Individual Portraits)

When you’re photographing individual dance portraits I would recommend using a white cotton background 10×20 in size. This will give you a full-length background in order to photograph full-length poses.

marley floor
You can also use white Marley floor for the base, so the dancers can stand on without slipping.

This prevents the background from moving around and gives you a more solid floor for them to stand on.

You can check out my article on 4 Benefits in Using a Marley Floor for Dance Portraits if you want to know a little more about why to use it. 

individual background
The above setup and equipment is what was used to create the below image

No editing or modifications have been done.

You also can notice that because the background exposure was done correct, the seem from the marley floor and the background does not show.

dancer posing on background

4 – Light Setup (Group Portraits)

So the only difference between photographing dancers on a background for individual portraits and for groups is the size of the background. 

I use the exact 10×20 white cotton background and instead of setting it up vertical (10 ft wide) I rotate it horizontally (20 ft wide) and use a Marley floor for the base.
group photo
You will need to make sure you have a background stand wide enough for this or you need to combine 2 background stands to support the width.

If you are not using a white Marley floor then you will need to have 2 (10×20) white backgrounds. One for the backdrop and one for the floor. 

The key to photographing groups on a white background is to make sure you have distance between the background and the dancers. 

I would recommend a minimum of 2-3 feet. 

Because the image will be wider than if you just photographed individual portraits. You will have to have your background lights farther to the sides. 

If you have the dancers too close to the background you will run the risk of your lights overexposing the subjects instead of just exposing the background.

over exposed whiteYou notice in the above image that one of the dancers face is extra bright (over exposed). This is because the dancers where too close to background.

Large Groups can be challenging to photograph on a white background. 

If you have the chance to position everyone closer and in rows, this will keep the image narrower instead of having a wide group picture, and to prevent running into lighting issues.

The alternative to very large groups is to edit a white background or extend the background in photoshop.

But ideally, you want to capture everything in-camera to save you time.



I want to highlight the key points to take away

    • Have 2 strobe lights off to each side of the background
    • Start off by lowering the power setting.
    • Increase until the background is white without wrinkles
    • Don’t overexpose background (TOO Bright) where the subject is hazy.
    • Have enough distance between subject and background

There are a lot of pros to photographing on a white background. 

    1. The subject is the main focus and not the background. 
    2. Your images will pop with color and contrast from the outfit
    3. Not having to edit shadows, spots, wrinkles from the background

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About the Author

Aaron creates content that encourages photographers to chase their passions and grow there business through dance photography. Aaron hopes to spread his story and be an inspiration to others who want to change their lives.