Creating a versatile studio on the go!
V-flats rock, they just do. For those who are not familiar with them, a “V-flat” refers to pair of large boards, typically with one black side and one white side, that have been joined together so they can be folded and stood on end. What’s great about them is that they can instantly turn about any space into a perfect place to shoot. Just open the V-flat towards your light source, stick your subject inside and there you go, instant background! Want some clean catalog shots? Shoot the white side. Going for a fashion/glamour look? Use the black side. And by opening the V-flat wider or closing it in tighter you can control the amount of light that falls on your subject (by controlling the amount of light, or lack there of, being reflected back from the other panel).
So, needless to say, when I first discovered V-flats I was pretty excited to build a couple of my own and try them out. And so simple to build, too! Just two boards taped together, right? Easy… um, yeah, not so much. So here’s the problem. Being that these will serve as backdrops for your subject they need to be fairly large, about 7’ to 8’ tall is a good start. Since they are so big they need to be rigid enough not to collapse under their own weight (usually right on top of your subject, so you want to avoid that). But they also have to be light enough to be easily moved and not damage the floor or other objects in the room while using them, like said subjects. That limits the material you can use to build them. I have heard a lot of suggestions for material and I found that all of them have their own advantages and drawbacks. Some suggest rigid insulation panels from Home Depot, like Owens-Corning Foamular. They are cheap, light, and easy to source. However, also happen to be bright pink and I personally wasn’t fond of the idea of trying to paint a pink panel white.
The most common material used is something called Gatorboard, which is a heavy-duty form of the hobby foam-core board found at your local Michael’s or Craft Warehouse. It’s a laminate foam-core too, but just uses two pieces of very thin wood on either side of the foam instead of paper. The challenge here is that a supplier for Gatorboard isn’t always conveniently located near your hometown (as was my case) and, being 8’ long, they are crazy expensive to ship. So I had to settle for 4x8’ sheets of 1/2 inch regular-old foam-core and just be more careful with it, since it’s not as durable (be sure you are using 1/2 inch or thicker, I found the thinner stuff to be too flimsy). Now for the next challenge, in order to get the most out of your V-flats you really need one side to be white and the other side to be black, so you can pick between a white or black background, etc. So I needed some way of making the other side of my huge white panels black. Unfortunately you can’t paint foam-core because the moisture content will warp it terribly. You also can’t wallpaper it either for the same reasons (moisture in the glue). Contact Paper was an option but the luster of the plastic film was just too reflective to make a good background. Not to mention, each of these directions was adding quite a bit to my cost, and I wanted to keep this project “cheap and easy.” Then it hit me, fabric! What better to use for a background than fabric! It’s cheap (mostly), relatively lightweight, easy to source, and comes in a huge array of styles, colors, and textures. So, off to Joann’s Fabric I went to check out my options.
I wanted to make two V-flats, and each V-flat has two panels. So I would need four lengths of fabric to create the black sides. I knew I wanted to stick to the typical white/black design too, and hold off on introducing any other colors (remember, one of the panels of the v-flat will be folded in towards your subject, which you will use to fill or flag reflected light. Introducing a crazy color on that panel could add a strange, unwanted color-cast). However, I did want to add some variation in texture. I ended up picking six yards of simple black cotton knit (basic black, no luster, so it sucks away light), one yard of black suede with a nice, velvety texture, and one yard of black leather with a cool, embossed pattern. So one V-flat would have my basic black and white, and the other would have texture variations I could experiment with.
So how to attached the fabric without warping the foam-core? There are a couple ways to do this but I found the best way was to use a combination of double-sided 3M carpet tape and what’s called “gaffers-tape.” Gaffers tape is what audio and video professionals use on movie sets to secure things like cables, etc. It’s similar to duct tape, but is much more flexible, stable, and doesn't leave all the sticky residue everywhere. Do not skimp on this, finding gaffers tape (especially in white, I had to use book binding tape as a substitute) can take a little effort, but do not be tempted to use duct tape. It simply won’t perform. Also don’t skimp on the double-sided tape either. I found the 3M carpet tape to be perfect, very sticky and very stable, while cheaper brands, like Ace, just didn’t hold as well.
So, I thought I would walk you through step-by-step what I did to build my V-flats. Again, there are other ways to do this but this is what I found to work for me.
Hey, you didn’t say anything about spray glue! You’re right, because I tried it and it don’t work. I’m sure there are some glues out there that might but, for me, tape worked the best.
Step By Step Process
Step 1: Prepare! Make sure your floor is nice and clean, your fabric is ironed, and the cat is locked up (that became a big problem as she had decided her proper place was under the fabric and wouldn’t be convinced otherwise). You will be doing a lot of pulling and stretching and will want plenty of space to work with nothing in the way.
Step 2: Lay down the fabric. Make sure you have at least 2 to 4 inches around the whole board so you have something to grab onto and secure.
Step 3: Fold down the top of the fabric and apply a line of carpet tape along the top outside edge of the foam-core board. Make sure the tape is flush at the top but 2” in from the right and left edge of your foam-core. This is because you will need that space to run the tape down the right and left sides of the board later on. I didn’t do that at first and found myself having to constantly pull up the fabric in the corners each time I started a new side.
Step 4: Now fold the fabric back over and press it into the tape using roller or straight-edge. Start from the center of the fabric and move out, keeping it slightly stretched as you go. This will keep it nice and smooth across the edge of the panel. Be sure the fabric has a good bond before moving on.
Step 5: Now repeat the process on the other end of the board. This time be sure to pull the fabric towards you first, before adhering it to the tape. That way the fabric will be tight across the surface of the board. Don’t pull too hard, remember, it’s just double-sided tape holding the other end (we will reinforce it later). Again start at the center and work your way out, pulling the fabric towards you and away from the center as you go.
Step 6: Now your board should look something like this, with the fabric pulled tight across the top and bottom. Next, fold over the fabric on the right hand side and lay down another line of carpet tape along the outside right edge of the foam core. Run the tape along the outside edge all the way to the top and bottom of the board, so you have tape from corner to corner.
Step 7: Just like before, fold the fabric back over and secure it to the tape, starting from the center and working out. Pull it towards you and out slightly to keep it tight as you make your way to the outside edges. Just be sure not to pull not too hard, as the fabric might stretch and bunch up at the corners (remember, the top and bottom of the boards are already secured). Once you get to the corners you will probably need to pull up a bit of the fabric at the top and bottom to re-stretch it and smooth out any wrinkles. How much of that happens really depends on the fabric you use, really stretchy fabric like faux suede and performance fabrics will loosen quite a bit and have to be re-stretched, while fabrics like linens and cotton knits won't as much.
Step 8: Next, start cutting off the excess fabric from the edges of the board. NOTE: please double and triple check the fabric is fully secured to the double-sided tape and pulled tight enough across the board to lay flat with no wrinkles (or very few, you might find a couple small ones here and there). You just don’t want the fabric to sag once the board is stood up, producing wrinkles big enough to show up in your shot, and once you cut off the excess fabric you won’t be able to easily pull the fabric off the tape to re-stretch it if necessary. I took a good few minutes working my way around the board with my roller, making user the fabric was secure and re-stretching any places that had developed wrinkles.
Step 9: Now your board should look like this! The fabric should be smooth, tight, and secure against the board. Now, grab your other piece of foam-core and repeat this whole process so you have two, fabric-covered pieces of foam-core. Gently stand up the foam-core up on it’s side (long side down) and lean it against a wall or a table, with the fabric facing out.
Step 10: Gaffer’s tape time! There are a few reasons for the gaffers tape. One is to further secure the fabric to the board itself, and another is to provide a secure foundation to create the “hinge” that will be tying the two boards together. Finally, it will also reinforce the edges of the board and provide the photographer with a good surface to pick up and handle the V-flats. I have seen what happens to the edges of foam-core when left exposed so the gaffers tape will go a long way to extending the lifetime of your V-flats. Apply the black gaffers tape along the entire “long edge” of the board, fabric side facing out, starting at one end and running all the way to the other. Be sure the board is centered in the middle of the tape itself, we want the same amount of tape folding over on both sides of the board.
Step 11: Fold the tape down over both edges of the foam-core. Start from the center and work your way out, being sure to pull down on the edges of the tape to make sure it lays flat against the board on all 3 sides. Repeat steps 10 and 11 for both boards. Make sure the tape adheres firmly to the fabric. We will eventually be doing this around the entire V-flat later on, so all of the edges are covered in gaffers tape, but not quite yet.
Step 12: Now, turn the outside board around so the two boards are leaning against one another, with the two fabric sides facing each other and the two edges where we applied the gaffers tape facing up. We will now bind the two boards together. Start by placing a piece of white gaffers tape at both ends, taping the two boards together (see picture). Then place another one in the middle. These will hold the two boards together while you build the “hinge” for the V-flat. We are using the white gaffers tape because this is on the white side of the boards, we will be switching back to the black tape when we build the other side.
Step 13: Now, using the white gaffers tape, apply a line of tape along the entire edge of the V-flat on the side facing up, joining the two panels together. You will want to align the tape so one board is centered in the middle of the tape, so about 1/4’ extends down the side of the board. This way about 1/4” of tape will extend over to the other board on the other side as well. Check out the two pictures below, notice how we are basically taping the two boards together, just keeping the tape off-set a little bit to one side. Next apply another line of tape, just offset it to the other side so that entire top edge of the V-flat is covered in white gaffers tape.
Step 14: The next part is a bit tricky. I want you to stand the V-flat up on one end (so it can stand on it’s own). Then walk one side of the V-flat around and turn it inside out. White side was out before, now you want the black side out. You might want someone to help you with this, but the gaffers tape is strong enough and sticky enough to hold things together as long as you are careful.
Step 15: Now that the black side is out, set the V-flat down along its long edge again and lean it up against a wall. Pull the white tape back from the edges of the hinge so it’s attached only by the sides (see right). Now grab the black gaffers tape and cover this side of the hinge as well. Again, offset the tape so about 1/4” of it folds over the edge of the board. Do that on one side, then the other, and if you necessary put another right down the middle. This will make a very strong, stable, flexible hinge.
This is what the hinge should look like before you apply the black tape (left), and then after (right). My tape was wide enough to cover the hinge in just two pieces, but use three if necessary.
Step 16: Now cover the rest of the edges of the two boards in black gaffers tape, using the method we used earlier. Just run the tape down the side, pull tight while pressing down, starting from the middle out. Now, you will notice black tape extends over to the white side, creating a border on our white panel. The easiest way to fix this is just cover that with another length of white gaffers tape on the white side. Just make sure you have gaffers tape securely holding the fabric around the entire edge of both panels.
Success! You now have your first V-flat! Strong, stable, inexpensive, and no messy paint to clean up! And durable enough to last for years, so long as you keep it away from the cats as they will instantly recognize it as a giant cat toy built specifically for them to climb and will proceed to do so immediately.
So go grab a subject and start experimenting. I began with just one light source, placed on the open side of the V-flat. Setting up for loop lighting is a great place to start, with the light at a 45 degree angle to the subject, slightly above eye level. Then you can move the sides of the V-flat around and see how it affects the light on your subject. If you are using the black side closing in the V-flat will darken the shadows on your subject, while doing the same on the white side will lighten and fill them in. And here is the really cool thing about using fabric; you can buy more for different backgrounds! Just use the white or black side for the fill you need, then clip the fabric you want for your background to the V-flat behind your subject.
I hope you all found this helpful. Again, there are a ton of ways to build these, this was just the way that worked best for me. I have had them for awhile now and they still look like new, so I know these will stand the test of time. If you have built these differently let me know, I would love to hear your ideas! And share some pictures!