How to Light the Cyc

For those of you who don’t know, cyc is short for cyclorama. They are in most professional studios and have replaced the seamless paper almost entirely. Why? Because with a cyc, you have complete control over your background. A cyc is where the corners and seams are not visible. Cycs normally cover two sides of the studio.

Assuming that your model is far enough away from the cyc, lighting can be controlled so that the background effect can be light or dark. Colored lights, cukaloris and other patterned screens can be used on the cyc to create interesting background effects. When lit evenly, the smooth surface, even as it goes around the corner of a studio, can provide an “infinity effect” — an endless space behind the models.

You can either light the cyc or not light the cyc. I will show you the difference. To achieve an “infinity effect”, I light the background with 4 light heads. 2 on each side. They are angled at a 45 degree angle to hit the background evenly. I use V flaps behind my lights to control flare and spillage onto the set.

This shot is using the 4 lights on the background effect:


As you can see, there is no shadow on the background. It is a smooth, endless appearing background.

If you want to create a black background, obviously just don’t light the background at all. With your main key lights that will be lighting the model, make sure you flag the light off the background so there is no spillage behind the subjects. In this shot, I photographed a different model on a different day but on the same exact cyc. There is just no lighting on the cyc, whatsoever.


Again, the model is far enough from the background but this time it is not as important than if I had lighting on the background because I don’t have to worry about spillage from either my key on to the background or my background light spilling onto the set, thus interfering with my lighting on the model.

For mood, you can create a gradient on the background, giving the effect that the background is indeed there but not competing with the model or the overall impact of the image. You can try throwing one light on the background to create a splash of light across the back or you can use lights from different angles, I’ve even placed a light head on the floor and pointed it up toward the background to create an interesting effect. This is a shot where I used one head on the background in order to create a silhouette effect behind my model:


I shot Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros way back when he was still in IMA Robot. I threw a light with a reflector and grid on the background so he would separate from the cyc. If the light hadn’t been placed there, the cyc would have been totally dark. I wanted to add some dimension to the shot, so I threw a small light behind him.

With lighting a background or cyc, you need to experiment. Try 4 lights, then 2 lights. Meter your background and try different exposures. I get about a 1 to 1 1/2 stop ratio between my background and my key light when I intend to blow out the background and create the infinite seamless white background. When I go totally black, I just make sure I flag everything off from my key lights so there is no spillage.

One thing I would stress is that there is no “right” way. It’s entirely up to the photographer’s eye and taste on what he/she is trying to achieve. There are all kinds of formulas, all kinds of mathematics and theories out there. I’m a photographer, not a mathematician. You can go to dpreview for that kind of technical stuff. I just know what looks good and I learned that by trial and error. And in my honest opinion, that’s the best way to learn!

Melissa Rodwell