This question came up in my Food Photography Club. Any Club member can ask any questions they have in our private user forum. One of my students is painting her office walls and will be using her office for her food photography studio. She was wondering what color her walls should be.
Right out of school, I worked for as many photographers as I could in a two year period. I worked for over 35 photographers. Almost every studio I’ve ever been in had white walls. One food studio had black walls, and one had a medium to light gray color on their walls. Everyone else had white. When I was googling this online I found a bit of a debate going on for what is the best color for photography studio walls.
The follow up questions are, what are you shooting and how do you typically like to do your lighting?
Obviously, those of us here on the blog are shooting food, and maybe an occasional food product in packaging when you start doing more work with agencies. Luckily, food isn’t really that reflective – nothing like an actual glass bottle for example. Because of that, when shooting food with white walls, you might find it a benefit to have some extra light bouncing around.
When shooting in a space with white walls, you will have lots of extra light bouncing around. When shooting in a space with gray or black walls, you will have very little, to no extra light bouncing around, depending on how dark they are.
So it really does depend on your lighting style, what color you should paint your studio walls, AND if you want extra light bouncing around it or not.
My studio had white coved walls (coved means they were completely seamless, no right angles), a white movable ceiling (called a flying flat), and had a white floor.
The image to the left was taken in my white studio. I only had two lights lighting up my back wall – that’s it. No fill cards on the front, nothing else. Just two lights on the back wall (I’ll be doing a post talking about this lighting style later).
If you want to do dark and moody lighting, where you have much darker shadow areas, then an entirely white space may not be appropriate for you. Of course you can make any space work as long as you know how to totally control your lighting, and use lighting modifiers to get the light that you want. What I’m saying is that if your style of lighting always leans towards a darker or lighter look, then you would want your walls to match that lighting style.
Darker, moodier images, consider gray or black walls, darker ceilings, and darker floors.
Lighter brighter images, consider pure white walls, ceilings, and lighter floors.
A mixture of both lighting styles, then maybe a light to medium gray would work for you.
Yes, even your floors and ceiling have a huge impact on how much light is bouncing around so you do need to pay attention to those colors as well.
I also have to do product photography for various clients. This is when white walls, white ceilings and white floors can be a problem because they reflect all the light. When doing product work in a space like this, I have to block all the light I don’t want bouncing around, so that I don’t get weird highlights that negatively impact the look of the product.
If you want to do a lot of product photography, and you don’t use your walls to bounce light off of like I do, then you might want to consider using gray, or even black walls.
This actual lighting style is called subtractive – I flood the area with light, then I take away the light I don’t need.
The image above is showing the huge set that I use for glass bottles. You can see all the light I and how I am controlling how it hits my bottles. But, I also light off of my white walls. The lights are pointing into the walls, then I am controlling what light is hitting the product.
How To Pick White Paint Colors
I was shocked at how much conflicting information I found about this online. Picking a paint color is actually very easy. You MUST pick a neutral white, neutral gray, or neutral black.
Neutral means no color or tint is added at all. For a white paint, you would use a white base paint, super matte, no texture, no shine. White base paint is what all the paint brands start with before adding any pigments to the paint. This is great for a pure white wall.
How To Pick Gray and Black Paint Colors
This can get trickier because the color black is a mix of several pigments together. So there are warm blacks (more yellow/red tones) and there are cool blacks (more blue tones).
Talk to the person mixing the paint and tell them the colors have to be as neutral as possible. So that would mean a black or gray paint that has equal amounts of pigment being added from each color to yield black. You can actually ask to see the formula that they are blending together to get a sense of the colors they are using to make the gray or black paint.
Some of the folks mixing the paints don’t understand when we say neutral that we really, technically, mean neutral. They might try to talk you into a warmer color. Just insist that you do understand and it’s for photography, not necessarily for a design statement.
What Shade Of Gray Should You Use?
If you choose gray for your wall color, you will have a ton of options for the actual shade (how dark it will be) of gray. I suggest to get some paint samples in three different shades, a light gray, a medium gray, and a dark gray. The shade that you use will most likely depend on the size of your space. If you have a very small space, then you might want a lighter gray. If you have a larger space, you might want to go darker.
The shade of gray that you want will also depend on how much natural light you have bouncing around in there and if you want to lessen the amount of light bouncing around, or not.
Get your three shades of gray you are testing, and paint very large patches on your walls – at least 3 feet square. If your walls were lighter before, be prepared for how much light this will cut down in your space. The darker the gray, the less light will be reflecting off of your walls.
What Type Of Ambient Light Is In Your Space?
I need to point out here, even if you know you bought a neutral paint color – your lights will completely affect how these paints will look. If you have very warm ambient lights that are 3200 Kelvin, your walls will look very warm in color. If your ambient light is daylight or 5600 Kelvin, your walls will look much cooler, if not blue depending on whether you are getting direct light, or open shade light.
Please keep this in mind because when you start painting, your mind will play tricks on you, and you might second guess your paint colors.
Remember that you are painting the walls to be used when doing photo shoots, so when you are not shooting and have your ambient lighting turned on, you might see a radical difference with how that room looks.
Rosco Photography Paints
Rosco is a company that makes photography gels for lighting. They also have an industrial line of studio paints. The problem is that they are very expensive at $50 a gallon. They make a TV white, and a TV black. They also make a bright chroma green and blue color for video production.
Please know that for some reason, they are calling their light gray paint white. THEIR WHITE PAINT IS NOT WHITE!
A while back, Benjamin Moore paints had a “Photography White” color. They don’t make it anymore, and you don’t need it. For white, just get their neutral white base paint.
But Don’t I Just Use My Camera’s White Balance To Fix My Color Balance With Lighting Anyway?
Sure you can. The goal though is to create a space as neutral as possible, so that your lighting is clean to start with. You can paint your walls what ever color you want. Just know that you will always have to do some color correction on your images. My goal is to make as little post processing editing work as possible.
The worst colors to use would be pinks, purples, reds, and greens. This will color contaminate your light when shooting and could be hard to correct later on in post.
Let me know if you have any follow up questions by posting them in the comments below.
If you would like some great food photography tips, check out my ebook by clicking on the image below.