How to Use a Green Screen: A Beginner’s Guide to Chroma Key Photography

howtouseagreenscreenChroma key photography, also known as green screen photography, is a process that allows you to replace a solid colored background with a background of your choice. This technique has been used in the film industry for years but it is now becoming very popular with photographers as well.

Using a green screen, you can capture amazing pictures that are simply not possible using conventional photo composition techniques. It also means you can spend a lot less money on expensive backgrounds for portrait photography. In many ways, green screen photography allows you to have fun taking pictures again while expanding your photography opportunities immensely. Green Screen Photography teaches you how to implement green screen photography techniques into your current photography skill set.

The point of using a green (or blue) screen is that it makes it easy to separate your subject from the background. Since the background is a solid color that is not typically found in human skin tones or clothing, it becomes very easy to separate your subject from the background.

If you are familiar with using Photoshop to change backgrounds, you may also be familiar with spending hours tracing out your subject meticulously to remove it from the background and place it into a new background. Green screen photography simplifies this process and allows you to separate your subject almost instantly using specially designed chroma key photography software.

What You Need to Get Started

Believe it or not, green screen photography is extremely easy to do once you understand the basics. In terms of equipment, you don’t need very much. Your digital camera (hopefully you already have one of these), a computer, chroma key photography software, and a green screen background.

There are many programs that allow you to swap out your green screen with the background of your choice. Photoshop has a chroma key filter that will automatically remove the green from your image but there are also a variety of custom-made programs that are designed specifically for chroma key photography. If you would like to learn how to use Photoshop for editing your green screen photographs, check out the Photoshop Made Easy course..

You can purchase a green screen background relatively inexpensively. If you are a portrait photographer that plans on using a green screen frequently, you should look to invest in a high quality background that is free from wrinkles. However, if you’re just starting out with green screen backgrounds you can even make your own. Many photographers have actually painted a wall in their studio green and position subjects in front of the green wall.

With practice, you will figure out what works and what doesn’t work as far as your background is concerned. The key is to eliminate wrinkles whenever possible as the color differences presented by these wrinkles can be difficult to remove completely during post production.

Lighting

The single most important aspect to successful green screen photography is lighting. You need uniform lighting across the entire background to quickly remove the green color from your photographs during post production.

To create the optimal lighting conditions, you practically need to have professional quality studio lighting available. Many photographers have successfully performed green screen techniques without high-end lighting systems, but processing these images with Photoshop or another chroma key program takes much longer.

Evenly lighting the background requires at least two lights. These lights should be set up as sidelights pointing toward the green screen from approximately a 45° angle. Typically, these lights should be about 6 feet away from the green screen although the material your green screen background is made of will determine the exact distance your light should be.

Remember that the goal is even lighting so move the lights around until you find a good, balanced light value across the entire green background. Avoid hot spots whenever possible. If these two sidelights are not enough, you can also add a third light above or below. Some photographers actually put a small light behind the subject. This helps to remove any shadows cast by your subject and is typically not visible in the photograph.

Learning to light your green screen properly is probably the most difficult task; however, the other consideration is lighting your subject. This follows all normal photography lighting principles; however, you have to keep in mind the final background you plan on adding whenever possible. You can learn more about proper photography lighting in Green Screen Lighting.

For instance, if you light your subject very well and plan on placing this person in a nighttime city skyline background, it won’t look natural because the subject will be lit much more than the rest of the picture. Minor differences in lighting can be overcome using Photoshop lighting effects, but more obvious differences may be difficult to cover up using software. For subtle changes, Dazzling Photoshop explains many of the common lighting effects found in Photoshop and how to use them properly.

Subject/Background Separation

As a final note, you should always try to keep you are subject at least 6 feet from the background. In large group shots, this may not always be possible, but the closer your subject is to the background, the more likely you are to have “green spill” on your subject’s face and other body parts. This can be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to remove during post production.

Hopefully you’re not put off by the lighting requirements of green screen photography. Please keep in mind that the “requirements” above are illustrated for optimal conditions. Many photographers successfully use green screens without special lighting equipment. It may take longer to remove the green screen during post production, but it is certainly less expensive than purchasing studio lights if you do not already own them.

The best way to learn green screen photography is to start practicing. You don’t have to run out and purchase a professional green screen background right away – start with something basic like a wall painted green or even green construction paper taped to a wall. Once you understand the basics, you may decide to invest in professional grade green screen equipment.

Either way, mastering green screen photography adds an entirely new facet to your photography skills that can quickly place you into a new category of professionalism and potential income opportunities in the future.