101 Uses for the Humble Polyboard

I don’t often talk technical on this blog, but just the other day it occurred to me that some very essential bits of professional kit get overlooked, simply because they’re not high tech, sexy, or expensive.  Nothing could be less high tech, sexy or expensive than the staple of hire studios across the world – the Polyboard, or as they’re known in the States – foamcore.

Easily mistaken for the Monoliths from 2001 – A Space Odyssey, polyboards are very useful, but less likely to lead to the advancement of humanity as a species. Stanley Kubrick joke there folks – not something you see every day!

Anyone who’s ever shot in a studio will recognise these large polystyrene boards, and anyone with a brain and a basic understanding of physics will recognise that their main role is to act as reflectors, and to bounce light back onto things.  However, this wouldn’t be much of a blog post if all I did was point that out, and I’d like to spend a little time highlighting other things they can be used for, since I’ve been working with them for about 20 years.

The most basic use of polyboards – white side towards subject to bounce light back. The setup shot on the left was taken just before the costume change, but I can assure you it’s the same setup as the shot on the right.
The same setup, viewed from reverse. It’s easy to see from this angle how much light will be bounced around the subject by the white polyboards.

So, first use – bouncing light from the white side of the polyboard.  That’s what they were invented for, and probably what they spend most of their time being used for.  It’s pretty simple really, place the polyboard where you want to lift the shadows, and away you go.  No need for batteries, cables, wifi, or any maintenance, although they can easily get knocked over by clumsy members of the crew.  

To place them you’ll need polyboard stands, and although there are many varieties of these (many studios make their own) they all do the same job – provide a “foot” for the polyboard so it can stand on it’s own without needing someone to hold onto it.  You can also get polyboard holders, which are simple claws that attach to a stand at one end, and then grip the polyboard at the other.  

Polyboard Stand + Holder
Polyboard stand on the left, polyboard holder on the right.

That brings me neatly onto the next stage of polyboard usage – moving beyond the vertical!  Using polyboard holders, or burly assistants, polyboards can of course be angled to bounce light in from below, or above.  I’ve also used them on several occasions to create a false ceiling above a subject, and then bounced light off that to create a top light – although I’ve not got any setup shots to prove it.

Angled Polyboard
Sorry – I couldn’t find any setup shots of a polyboard being angled, so you’ll have to make do with one of my reflector panels – serves the same purpose, and you get the idea!

Don’t limit yourself to just thinking of polyboards as bounce tools either – if you somehow forgot to bring a softbox, brolly or similar diffuser for your light and you need a large soft source, well, just take the light and twat it off the white side of the polyboard.  Job done, one very large soft light.

I very often need to shoot stuff against a white or similar backdrop to be cut out and comped into something else.  Unless I’ve got lots of flash heads spare to light the background evenly, the easiest way to light a large area smoothly is to employ a pair of polyboards as a “V” board:

V Board
A “V” board.

Aim the open end of the V across your background, and place one at each side.  Bingo, a nice evenly lit background, that also doesn’t spill forwards onto your subject.  Using these I can pretty much light a large area very evenly with just 2 heads.  If, for some reason I’ve got 4 lights handy, I’ll put 2 in each side – one high and one low.  

Polyboards can just as easily be used to control the spill of light as they can be to bounce it about the place.  It’s been a while (check the film rebates on the photo below!) but I used to use what I called a “Triangle” light from time to time:

Triangle light
Shot sometime in the late 90’s. Be grateful there’s no setup shot showing my hairstyle.

With this it’s easy to create a full length, directional, soft light – simply open or close the aperture to control how much light you want to spill out.

Now, the sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed that like all objects in the physical world, polyboards have two sides.  Amazing.  If you go to a crap studio, you’ll only find double-sided white ones, but any studio worth the hire price will have polyboards that are white one side, and black the other.  The black side is every bit as important as the white one, and on some shoots more so.  I’ll state the obvious, but the black side helps to accentuate any shadows, and control the spill of light.

Black Polyboards
From a recent Men’s Fitness shoot. Note that the studio is all white, so without the placement of black polyboards next to the model, the shadows on his body would be significantly less harsh.

Shooting lots of chiseled blokes like I do, I use the black side very often indeed – if you took a hugely muscular bloke, but then put him in a totally white studio – even a hard light source would still not do a great job of showing off his guns.  Careful placement of the black side can sculpt your models as much as weeks in the gym!

Simply put: white side – more light, black side – less light.  Controlling the spill of light, bouncing high, low, from either side and so on.  That’s the obvious side to polyboards, and hopefully it’s been useful.  To wrap up, I want to cover a few more esoteric uses for them that either I’ve used myself, or encountered down the years.

I’ve used polyboards as mobile pin boards/mood boards:

Polyboard Pin Boards
Behind the scenes on a Men’s Health Cover model competition.

I’ve used them to block light falling in from a window, or to stop up a draught from a door.  I’ve used half a polyboard to waft smoke from a smoke machine across a set (be careful, waving something 3ft by 3ft can create quite a gust of wind – you may well knock other polyboards over…..).  I’ve made countless marks on them with either gaffer tape or marker pen to give the subject an imaginary eyeline.  I once cut a hole in one, and stuck my lens through to cut down on the reflections on a shiny subject.  Quite frequently, in my assisting days, we used to create a small stage out of them a few feet from the backdrop, roll out the huge roll of 12ft background paper, seat the model on the staging, and then light from on top with a big softbox like an Octabank.  The effect was often quite subtle, but it would create a horizon line behind the model, and separate the background from them better:

Polyboard Staging
Polyboards used to create staging. The effect is quite subtle in the ancient scan, but it’s more pronounced in the original polaroid.

So, don’t neglect such humble, inexpensive tools.  Personally, I’ve no idea how I’d work in the studio without them, and I often find myself lamenting their absence on location – portable fabric panels are all very well, but they usually need someone to “man” them.  Just look how excited Bertrand got when he found there was a huge stack of polyboards in the studio we were shooting in:

Hanging from the ceiling
I can’t for the life of me remember why we had to get him swinging from the rafters, but he seems very happy to be there.

Interested in learning more about lighting?  I have a full course right here that walks you through everything you need to know to understand lighting in photography.


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