Since its introduction some years ago, the Lastolite HiLite background has been increasingly popular with portrait photographers. This background is designed to shoot high-key work - you know, that white bleached out look that continues to be so popular. On paper the HiLite would seem a very simple solution to achieving that clean, white background to shoot against, and it is - if used with the right lighting.
Sadly, I still get a lot of correspondence about the HiLite background from photographers who struggle to achieve the look that they expected. That’s why I’m putting pen to paper, not in the form of a review as such, but just to reassure you that using the HiLite need not be a struggle.
First things first; it’s very important to buy the correct size HiLite for your shooting space and the work you want to do. Buying one that’s too big is a mistake people often seem to make. Remember that the HiLite will take up space - more than you may realise. Don’t forget that you also need space to put the thing together, to allow space each side of it for stands, and behind the background if you want to back light it.
Lastolite HiLites come in various sizes: 3.6’x4’6, 5’x7’ 6’x7’ and 7’x8’ - plenty to choose from. But before you buy, think carefully about the space you have and the work you want to shoot, not only now, but also in the future, and buy the right one for you.
All the HiLites are constructed in the same way and are pretty straightforward to put together. To make the process even easier Lastolite have some great videos on their own web site. The HiLite is designed to be portable and can be unzipped and taken anywhere in an average car. The idea behind the HiLite is very straightforward - they provide a simple oblong freestanding box, that when lit from each side gives a seamless white background to shoot against.
However, to get the best from them you need to think about two key things: the lighting and the shooting space that I’ve already mentioned. Lighting is the key to the success or failure of the HiLites and this is where things can go wrong. I know that most enthusiasts start by buying a two head lighting kit, often fairly moderate in power to shoot simple portraits. They then decide to buy a HiLite background to improve their high-key portraiture, but they don’t realise that to light the HiLite background effectively you also need two lights to light it evenly, one from each side.
So this is the most common question that I receive, how to light a HiLite background evenly and light the subject/s with a two head lighting kit? The answer I’m afraid is that you can’t, and before you all write in and say that you can, I know that using one 400j or 500j head will light most of a Hi Lite background from the side or from behind, but what’s the point of that? You’ve just spent a lot of your hard earned cash on this super piece of kit that will solve all your lighting problems, so why compromise and light bits of it? I know this happens from the emails I receive. Photographers who complain that their HiLites are ‘muddy’, ‘not even across the width’ and ‘only half of it looks good’.
It’s a shame when I hear this because if lit properly the HiLite will do what it’s supposed to do and do it very well. On the tests I’ve done over the years, I’ve found that using two 250j or two 400j heads will light the HiLite 6’x7’ perfectly. So please take this into consideration before you buy one. Anything less than 250j can leave the corners of the HiLite a little uneven.
Having got the right power, how do we use it? Again, in the tests I’ve shot, placing a stand each side of the HiLite with the heads inside it is a good starting point. If you have Bowen’s heads, I would recommend that you use Wide Angle reflectors, if you have Elinchrom’s use the Umbrella reflectors. I found that using those small reflectors is better than using heads without anything on them, the light is more contained within the reflectors and you’re less likely to get ‘spillage’. When the heads are neatly tucked inside the HiLite , zip up the edges to prevent the light from spilling out.
That ‘spillage’ or bounce back can also be a problem in front of the HiLite . It can be tricky to get the lighting balance just right, using enough light to light the HiLite evenly from edge to edge without it bouncing back onto the subject and this is where having enough space becomes the other key factor. To light your HiLite evenly may well cause a little bounce back onto the subject, causing a rim light effect. Too much light coming from behind the subject can be as bad as having not enough light across the background.
If you shoot portraits you’ll notice this bounce back effect, especially on the skin tones. If you look carefully at the neck or shoulder area of your model, you’ll notice that those areas can just disappear as a result of the light bouncing back onto the subject from the HiLite.
If we were lighting a white paper or vinyl background we could simply reduce the power or adjust the angle of the lights. But with the HiLite, the only thing we can do is move the model away from it reducing the amount of light that bounces back, hence the space we have in front of the HiLite becomes another important issue.
I’ve also found that the height of the lights inside the HiLite is important too. If you want to shoot on the floor for instance, move the lights down a little and just worry about the lower area of the HiLite. Keep them in the middle for most work and slightly higher to shoot head and shoulders shots of standing models. I know this sounds like common sense, but I also know that these little tweaks do help to keep that background even, just where you need it.
Over the years Lastolite have also introduced a number of accessories that work with the HiLite and the white train seems to be the most popular. Other accessories include a Grey or Black bottle top and a Green or Blue Chromakey.
Going back to that white train, it comes in a tube, unrolls and attaches to the bottom edge of the HiLite by a Velcro strip. I’ve had quite a few comments about it saying that it is a bit small and does leave a join mark that needs a bit of Photoshop tweaking to remove it. I have used it myself and agree with those views. The train is the same size as the 6’x7’ HiLite and it could do with a little more length to it. But for most work, providing that you can get that lighting balance right, allowing to shoot your model close to the background, it’s OK. If you have too much bounce back, forcing you to bring your model forward, then you can run out of train. You can improvise by adding white background paper on the floor, but another 2’ or 3’ feet in length would solve the problem.
To get another opinion about the HiLite background, I phoned a friend! My old chum Lee Blanchflower is a Norfolk based photographer who shoots weddings and portraits and has used the HiLite for some years professionally, so I asked him a few questions about it. Here’s how our conversation went:
Morning Lee, can we chat about your HiLite, tell me what you think about it?
Hi Steve, It’s actually one of the best value pieces of kit I’ve ever bought. I was dubious at first, thinking I’d wasted my money initially. For light control it beats my vinyl hands down. Tight spacing, quick assembly and consistent light no matter how close you are to the background.
I know that you take the HiLite with you on location, does that work well?
I’m regularly using the HiLite for event photography at charity balls. I’m officially working as photographer for the footballer Darren Huckerby for his new DH60 Charity and for small groups, the HiLite is excellent. In the past, guests have only had the option of old school blue/grey cloth backgrounds. I use the HiLite with a Hi-Ti Sub Dye printer and guests love the look because it’s modern and shows off dresses and formal wear very nicely.
What about full length stuff, do you shoot much?
It does become a problem to shoot full length Steve, trying to use a kicker to blow out the train seam, so I now shoot head and shoulders and three quarter work with the HiLite, the results are superb. You can use Photoshop to remove that seem, but I don’t bother. I thought you might like to see a few examples of the HiLite , so I hope you enjoy shots that I’ve taken with it.
As you can see from these super images, the background works really well for portrait work. Lee uses Bowens Gemini 500R’s and has used Elinchrom D-Lite 400’s in the past to light his HiLite.
So to sum up the HiLite, it does work well as long as you buy the right size for your work and your shooting space. And as long as you buy the right powered heads to light it, you will achieve that perfect Hi key look.
My sincere thanks to Lee Blanchflower for sharing his thoughts and his images with me. You can see more of Lee’s stunning work on his own web site at www.leeblanchflowerphotography.co.uk.