A staple of Annie Leibovitz’s Vanity Fair photos is her use of premium hand-painted canvas backdrops. It seems like such a simple thing. By putting a backdrop on a set or on location, it changes the real estate of the image. There is a thick and tasteful texture to the backdrops. It’s subtle and it sure is a far cry from your vignetted and cliched high-school-yearbook-photo backdrops. In continuation of our How to Shoot like Annie Leibovitz series, we explore the use of these backdrops in photography.
Two companies have really cornered the high quality canvas backdrop market, Oliphant Studios based in New York and Schmidli Backdrops based throughout the world. Both have an impressive stock of already-painted canvases. Both do custom work. Both business models are based on rentals rather than sales.
Single day rates for renting a Schmidli canvas starts from $250 (for a 10′ by 12′) all the way to $900 (for a 30′ by 50′), along with a 20% off student discount. Oliphant rentals are more expensive but the rental period is for up to 3 days. Prices start at $310 for students, $335 for editorial shoots, and $440 for print advertising and catalogues. All of these prices do not include shipping and I’m guessing those would be quite hefty. Painted canvases are large and heavy!
Since the rental rates really aren’t economically sustainable for solo photographers or small studios to use on a continuous basis, the financially prudent thing would be to either (1) invest in one of their works of art or (2) recreate one of your own.
To outright purchase one of their canvases, you’d have to inquire about their sale prices. They do not list their prices (red flag for “if you have to ask you can’t afford it”). By their rental rates, I estimate their purchase prices are well into the four digits range. They are so prized, this photographer cried when she bought her own Oliphant. The reaction is understandable and the business model makes sense. It takes forever to make one of these, why would you sell them when you can keep making money off of them?
This leaves us with the second option, creating our own Oliphant or Schmidli style backdrop. There are a handful of websites out there that tries to detail a how-to. This one uses the Home Depot tarping canvas. This one looks really doesn’t look like an Oliphant style backdrop. Then this one is which is very wrinkled and doesn’t have the same matte texture. The problem is, most DIY-ers are not painters or mural artists. They were experimenting.
Here at iLHP, if we want to do something, we do it right. I’m not going to tell you we did the canvases for $47. They were not cheap. But they are also affordable enough for mere mortals when compared to the Oliphant and Schmidli backdrops, which are really geared towards large studios and ad agencies. So here at iLHP, we commissioned a highly regarded LA mural artist to paint a backdrop for us and walk us through the process step by step.