I have a stack of 32×40’’ pieces of mat board in various colors like this that I use for my photography on a regular basis.
I use them as a quick way to achieve a plain background when shooting small objects, headshots and food. I also use them to reflect light or absorb shadows.
You can buy mat board at most craft/hobby stores like Michael’s or Joanne’s, or any framing store. Most framers will sell it in sheets like this if you request it. I get mine in the Michael’s framing department for about $12 each. You can also find it online.
Here’s 3 simple ways you can use mat board for your photography.
1. Use it as a background for headshots
I often get people asking if I can do a quick headshot of them for their business cards or website. Rather than setting up my big background stand I just ask an assistant to hold up the mat board behind my subject. Simple and easy like this, using natural light and having them sit on a stool. Gray is great color to start with if you don’t have any yet. It’s so versatile for many things!
Mat board also works great for shooting babies and kids. Just prop it up with a chair or couch and sit them in front of it near some natural light. I have an example of this with my baby propped up in his Bumbo seat here on this post 10 Tips For Photographing Your Baby.
2. Use it to reflect light or absorb shadows
Most sheets of mat board come colored on one side and white on the other. I use the white side as a fill to reflect light back into the shadowed side of my subject.
Sometimes you may want to show detail on both sides of your subject or capture catch lights in both eyes. I have a fancy reflector that works great outside or when you have more room to pull it back to lessen the intensity. However, for close ups and shooting in tight spaces I prefer the softer reflected light that results from a white piece of mat board or foam core.
Here’s a pullback of this pineapple I was using for some macro shots. Notice the shadows present without the board and the fill light that it provides with it. You can also place a white piece of board on your subject’s lap and it will reflect light back up to their face to help soften shadows under the chin, nose and eyes.
Note: I actually used foam core as my white reflector here, but you could also use white mat board. Foam core is nice because it’s thicker than mat board and stands up a little better. You can play around with the distance between your board and subject depending on the intensity of light you need.
Here’s another pullback of my son that shows how the white board reflects catchlights back into his eyes and gives enough light to show the star on his face more clearly. I edited out the board for the final shot on the right.
Sometimes a more dramatic shadowed look may be what you are going for. You can use a black piece of mat board or foam core to absorb light, which is called “flagging” the light and will help deepen the shadows and keep light from bouncing back onto your subject.
3. Use it as a solid background for shooting food or small objects
When shooting food my goal is to have a simple background so the focus is on the food. I selectively choose the appropriate color of mat board that will best compliment the food or dishes that I am using for the shot. I think I’ve shared this photo on here before, but it’s a good mat board example photo.
For this shot I placed the Butterscotch Nutella bars (I know, sounds yummy huh?) on a bamboo cutting board and had an assistant hold the mat board behind the cutting board about 6 inches. I shot at a wide aperture of f/3.2 and from a straight on/low angle so the seam between the two boards would not be defined. Had I shot from above, the space between the cutting board and the mat board would have shown.
I get tired of using my same countertop or wood from my kitchen table or floor as my backdrop. Mat board is great way to change things up and add some color to your image. My kids and I made these thank you gifts for their teachers last year. I placed the yellow board underneath them for color and changed my angle a bit for two different looks. By shooting from above you can achieve a solid background from your mat board.
Mat board also comes in handy for use with macro photography. Sometimes all you need is a little splash of solid color under your subject to make it pop. I placed my vase of flowers on top of a pink mat board and shot from above for this image of these leaves. Again, remember to choose wisely what color best compliments your subject. The leaves would have not stood out as well in this image had I chosen a green or dark board.
If you are doing a close up shot of anything and you need to eliminate a distracting background, just have someone hold up a sheet of mat board off in the distance. Coach them to move in the direction you need as you are looking through your lens and composing your shot. You will be surprised at how many times you grab that mat board quick to get a more polished look!
Are there any other ways you use mat board? I’d love to hear any additional ideas!