Photography is one of those fields that has hundreds of scientific, technological and creative terms associated with it. There's no real surprise in that; after all, some of those terms actually originated in the industry, like "f-stop" and "focal plane". Every once in a while, though, a more obscure word or phrase sneaks its way in and although you hear it dropped by photographers occasionally, you either ignore it or if you're like me, you go look it up and decide if it's important to you.
Alright, I'll get to the point. One term you may have heard occasionally in the photo business is "cyclorama". Now, if you've gone and looked it up, you found something like the following definitions, borrowed from Merriam-Webster online dictionary:
1. a large pictorial representation encircling the spectator and often having real objects as a foreground
Cool, huh? Well, sort of, but probably not exactly something that every photographer needs.
2. a curved curtain or wall used as a background of a stage set to suggest unlimited space
Well, that doesn't sound like it applies to photography, either – but wait. What was that about "unlimited space"? Hmmmm. You're catching on now, aren't you? Imagine what a photographer could do with unlimited space!
The fact is, there really should be a third definition that applies directly to photography. A cyclorama, or perhaps more accurately, a cycloramic background, can be used to create what's often referred to as an "infinity background", which you may recognize as a background that appears to have no beginning or end. Typically, this is done with a simple sweep, a fabric or paper background that lays on the floor and curves upward to a horizontal plane behind the subject.
As you can imagine, subject positioning, camera angle and lighting are all critical in the setup of such a background. A cyclorama, however, is much more flexible, because the background curves on both the vertical and horizontal axes. That means you can change your camera angle much more freely and use your lighting much more creatively. In fact, a reflective white cycloramic background easily becomes part of your lighting system, helping you sculpt shadows and add fill light to achieve exactly the effect you want. For many shots, all that's required is a properly positioned main light and a couple of reflectors to get the perfect modeling of your subject.
If you've ever watched a news or weather report on television, there's a good chance you've seen a cyclorama "in action". Since it can be lit very evenly, a cycloramic background is ideal for blue or green screens that can be used to create virtual backgrounds like that live weather map behind the meteorologist. High-end fashion and portrait studios often have immense cycloramas, because they can be made to completely disappear or create dramatic gradients with only a little bit of lighting adjustment.
So, why would you want one? I'd be surprised if you haven't already answered that question yourself. Whether you're shooting a still life, a product shot, a miniature architecture or fantasy scene, or any other setting, the control you have over the appearance of the background and your lighting is phenomenal. You can even create your own green screen with the right lighting and add in your display, sci-fi or fantasy backgrounds in post-processing.
Fortunately, you don't have to be independently wealthy to get your own cycloramic studio. The folks at ProCyc have been creating them for the cinematic and photographic industries for years, and they have product lines to suit any application. For those of us with small budgets and no need to shoot things on a gigantic scale, their MyStudio® line is a great way to set up a full tabletop cycloramic setup in a small space, at a surprisingly reasonable price.
I recommend checking out their MS32 Tabletop Photo Studio Kit. In addition to a wide, lightweight cyclorama, you get everything you need to light any small to medium-sized subjects for product shots, still life photos, and more. It's portable, versatile and a great way to find out just exactly how a cyclorama can enhance your photos. Take a few minutes to watch the demo video below, then visit the Pro Cyc website to get all the details and order yours.