Photo shoot post 3: backgrounds

Backgrounds aren't something that you notice immediately when you look at the finished products of a photo shoot. What you see (ideally) is the item that is the primary subject of each photo. Yet backgrounds are critically important to the overall flavor of a book, magazine, or website, and to your ability to notice the foreground items that you came to the publication to see.

For the book part of The Project, art director Mary Velgos spent a lot of prep time first figuring out a layout concept (which she needed to do in consultation with a number of other involved people at all levels of Storey Publishing) and then gathering the materials to make her concept work in the studio. I'm skipping to the end part of that here, since it's what pertains directly to the photo shoot.

For the part of the photography that I'm describing here, Mary's challenge involves making visual sense of the bits and pieces of textile that I am providing (locks, both raw and clean, and small amounts of yarn) plus a bunch of tiny swatches (woven and knitted from my handspun by other folks). She's working with natural-colored fibers ranging from white to black (with gray-toned and brown-toned spectra), and from very large to tiny.

She developed a vision that includes several layers of background. Her intention is to give the reader a sense of immediacy in encountering the fibers on the printed page. That means the two-dimensional images need to feel three-dimensional, and the varied tactile qualities of the fibers need to predominate.

Each page has a background color that is provided by a piece of pastel matboard. The boards have to be pastel so that overprinted type can be easily read. Photographer John Polak is shooting so that the subtle texture inherent to matboard doesn't become a distraction.


Why not take what appears at first glance to be the easy way out and simply build this bottom layer of color in InDesign? Because the shadows of the upper layers form an important part of the effect of the whole, finished image and cannot be produced well enough that way. Mary's way of putting this together and John's ability to translate it to digital photographs are, frankly, pure genius: genius informed by experience.

Interestingly, even though a trip to an art store shows myriad colors of matboard, there really aren't quite enough different shades of pastels. . . . Mary and John keep wishing for more. . . .

The next layer consists of weathered wood—what we refer to as barn board, although some of it has come from barns and some from other places. Before we ever got to the studio, Mary spent a lot of time collecting boards. Here's some of what she came up with:


Closer looks at some of the boards:









We're all getting to know every knot and striation in these pieces of woods extremely well. All of the fibers are being shot with the camera at the same distance from the subject. That means that the sizes and shapes of the boards determine how they can be used; the camera can't just be moved closer or farther away. There's no fudge factor. Some pieces of wood are large enough to work on a spread (a double-page image), while others can only be used when we need, say, half a page or two-thirds of a spread.

Although there is no fudge factor, tools have come in handy . . . tools like hammer, saw, and drill. Some of the board sets have been deconstructed so they will fit in the image area. When this is the case, John's highly developed photographic savvy comes in handy.



The Project is big enough that by a few days into the shoot Mary was wishing for even more choices of barn board.

Choosing the board for a particular sequence of shots involves looking ahead to see what sizes of shots will be required and whether the boards under consideration will accommodate them. When we have a particularly large set that requires the same boards (there is a logic to the way the boards are used, one which will create strong, but not obvious, visual integration in the completed book), one of the questions is whether we'll still like the boards by the end of a full day of working with them!

The top level of the background consists of a piece of hand-dyed wool fabric. Here's the lovely array of possibilities at the beginning of a set of shots:

They seem to have been dyed to correspond with the colors in one of the paintings John has hanging in his loft:


Here are some of the cool colors:

Here's a mix of the warm options:


Here's Mary, coming to select a color or two to test for a shot early in the day:


And by the end of the day, here's what the rack looks like, with the fabrics we've used removed (so they won't be repeated too close to each other in the flow of the book). . . .


And here are the fabrics that have been used during the day:


Before we all get together to shoot the "other fibers" (having completed the wool in our last session), Mary intends to get a few more colors of fabric to work with. If the shop had been open either before or after the hours of our shoot, we would have gotten more to use during this group of shots. (We were shooting from about 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Sunday, and the fabric source is open noon to 5, Tuesday through Saturday. The shop is far enough from the studio that just running out for a quick re-stocking trip wouldn't work.)

How does all this stuff go together?

In what I have come to think of as a "background sandwich": matboard, then barn board, then fabric . . . and finally the locks, skeinlets, and tiny swatches that are the point of it all:


In the finished book, one specific type of barn board is being used for each family or group of fibers. Within that group, each individual breed or type of fiber has a unique combination of matboard and fabric. This gives unity to the group while distinguishing the breeds and types. The entire, complex interplay seems very simple and gives the flow of the layout both unity and diversity.

It's a whole lot of work that will not be in-your-face in the finished product.

And it's totally ingenious.


Next post in this sequence: What I'm doing while Mary and John are producing their wonderful images.


8 thoughts on “Photo shoot post 3: backgrounds”

  1. I am so looking forward to this book, a visual feast that brings textural impressions to your mind… the next best thing to being able to touch the fibers with our fingers, we can touch them with our vision.

  2. I’m jealous on so many levels reading these posts, LOL! This one makes me especially yearn for more “barn board” but that would also mean a place to store it. This week has also made me even more jealous of a dedicated studio 🙂 I can’t wait to see this all come together!

  3. Gosh, in addition to this being a major reference book for the different kinds of sheep and their wool, it seems like this book will also become a major work of art. I am looking forward to buying it and drooling over all the different wools. Best – Hester from Atlanta

  4. Hester, we're in the studio again. And you're right: it's going to be truly beautiful. I have nothing to do with that–! Except making sure the right stuff gets into the photos.

    And . . . we did the sheep in the previous seven days. We're on goats and llamas now. . . . 

    Thanks for the encouraging words. They help with the marathon we're running (slowly and very steadily).

Comments are closed.