This guide to understanding the plate shot will help you to use this versatile technique for your photography and filmmaking.
It’s a great way to enhance your images and footage by replacing unsatisfying backgrounds with more impressive vistas.
I’ve used the technique to create better backdrops for subjects in portraits with improved lighting and atmosphere.
It’s easy to accomplish and a great trick for introducing special effects to your next short film.
Table of Contents
What is a Background Plate Shot?
A background plate shot is a technique used in both still photography and filmmaking to allow for additional scope when compositing background elements with a subject.
In photography, a background plate shot can be taken either before or after shooting the subject, taking multiple images of the background with the subject removed.
By taking the same shot with and without the subject included, the photographer can remove unwanted elements from the background, such as moving vehicles or other objects.
This then allows them to bring the two shots together into a single shot, combining foreground and background plates into an overall plate composite.
The technique allows photographers to edit their subjects against a cleaner version of the background in post-production or even introduce completely new backgrounds from archive images.
In the film industry, background plate shots are intimately linked with the use of a green screen to create composites and integrate special effects behind a subject.
The same fundamentals apply to background plates used in filmmaking as with photography, allowing for the use of higher-quality backgrounds to be imposed behind the subject.
For example, special effects maestro Douglas Trumbell frequently used background plates for his work on Blade Runner to superimpose foreground elements against the futuristic cityscapes.
Historical Context of Plate Shots
The origins of the use of plates go back to the early years of photography and the use of dry gelatin plates in combination with a variety of chemical printing techniques.
By the Victorian period, composite shots were created by placing one plate on top of another, shooting the subject against a plain backdrop before adding background plates.
The plate shot has also undergone various evolutions over the course of filmmaking history as new technology has emerged to improve the process.
Previously, filmmakers used rear projection screens, most notably for scenes in driving cars, with the effect accomplished in-camera instead of the background being superimposed in post-production.
The green screen is today’s equivalent of a background plate shot in movies, offering a highly editable blank canvas behind the filmed subject where new background elements can be later added.
Using chroma key techniques in editing software, green screens can be used to drop subjects onto new backgrounds and add special effects in post-production.
To do this, shoot footage of your subject in front of the green screen, then remove the green background and replace it with transparency before adding the new background.
The primary reason why green is used for this modern-day version of a plate shot is the absence of this color in skin tone and most types of clothing.
Today, using green screens is commonplace in movie making, although in recent years, these have been superseded on some projects with virtual production techniques.
Virtual production replaces the green screen and instead uses high-resolution LED screens with real-time, reactive backgrounds synced to camera motion.
This next revolution in filmmaking allows actors to interact directly with the environment during filming and respond to the background in ways green screens prohibit.
Common Uses of Plate Shots
There are many ways filmmakers use plate shots to enhance their imagery and introduce new and dynamic elements to a scene.
The plate shot is often used to add new backgrounds behind a subject, as well as special effects that can’t be easily accomplished in-camera.
Another common use of plate shots is the driving plate, a modern-day evolution of the aforementioned rear projection technique used to film actors in moving vehicles.
It can also be used to offer 180-degree background plates by using three cameras to capture additional information for use in post-processing.
By using an array of cameras in this way, the images can be stitched together to create a panoramic background that covers more of the action.
This method is especially commonplace in larger Hollywood productions that have the necessary budget for expensive three-camera rigs.
Additionally, a plate shot can be used for scene transitions, allowing for more creative editing and transition types in video editing software.
The principal use of the plate shot in photography is to allow for additional backgrounds to be used in composite images.
Editing images in post-processing with a background plate is easier and faster, allowing you to remove light stands from a scene or completely alter the backdrop.
Finer details can also be removed in the background, while shadows, highlights, and other image qualities can also be adjusted.
It’s also an effective method for creating thematic photo series, with a consistent look applied across each image with ease.
Portrait photographers regularly use plate shots in their studio to set their subjects on different background images and experiment with exposure, and control other factors.
4 Plate Shot Tips & Examples
If you’re thinking of experimenting with the plate shot technique in photography or videography, there are a few things to bear in mind.
Here are a few plate shot tips to consider that can make the difference between good and great results.
- Use a camera tripod. One way a plate shot is destined to fail is if it fails to capture the correct information. By using a camera tripod, you can replicate the exact composition across all shots for easier editing in post-processing.
- Experiment with focal lengths. A good tip for plate shots is to take multiple shots of the background while changing the focal length between each shot. A different focal length might produce a more pleasing result that pairs effectively with the subject.
- Use custom white balance and manual controls. In order to guarantee consistency in your shots, you should set your camera controls to manual. This way, you’ll have complete control over how the images come out so they match in the editing software.
- Take multiple photographs. A solid rule of thumb for any photography scenario is to take several shots as an insurance policy against unforeseen issues. This is equally applicable to the plate shot.
Post-Processing Plate Shots
There are several editing techniques that benefit from using a plate shot when processing images and video footage.
Color correction and color grading are fundamentally improved when using a plate shot since they allow for distinct separation and fine-tuning of foreground and background elements.
You can also enhance specific details with more precision, as well as hone in on a specific element to increase its sharpness in contrast to the rest of the image.
Lastly, unwanted elements, such as passersby, vehicles, and signs, can all be quickly removed, particularly when using remove object AI tools in programs such as Photoshop.
Compositing and Layering
For filmmakers and photographers alike, a plate shot is an excellent resource for integrating subjects into a scene using compositing and layering techniques.
It also allows for the seamless blending of multiple images into a single composite shot keeping everything accurately within the frame.
A plate shot also opens up the potential for using a range of associated software tools and plugins, as well as streamlining your visual effects workflow.