I have two favorite and often used backgrounds.
The First are a pair of black bed sheets that I soaked in vinegar to set the color. You want to look for basic cotton sheets without any shimmer or shine. I found four queen sized sheets at my local ‘Mart for under $10 each.
The Second is white muslin. I purchased 5 yards of 108” wide muslin on at an online fabric store for under $20.
If you want a colored background, purchase some muslin and some Ritz dye. Using one of several techniques such as those described here, you can create some very useful and fun backgrounds.
Mis-match Paint can be your friend if you are looking to create a background for your studio. My favorite studio background now is one we made from purchasing the largest painter’s canvas that will work for our space and checking out the mis-match paint. You want to look for a paint that has warm tones that will compliment skin tones. If you purchase a can of paint, consider looking at a warm gray as it is very complimentary for many skin types and portraits. If you have some artistic talent (or know someone), you may consider looking online at some backgrounds that you like and try to imitate them. The keys to a successful background are 1) flat paint. Any other paint will reflect light. 2) gesso. Sealing the canvas will prevent you from purchasing tons of paint. 3) the proper paint equipment. Select a roller and brushes (if you are adding depth with other colors) that properly distributes the paint without soaking the canvas. 4) the proper work space. You’ll need a work space that is clean and where you can lay the canvas flat until it dries. After the canvas dries, it is best to store it hanging up and your second option is to store it rolled in a large cardboard tube. It is best to avoid folding it.
Insulation Board is a versatile background. It can be used as an aluminum colored background on one side and then wall paper or fabric can be glued on the other side for two backgrounds in one. For a wider background, put two 4×8 sheets of insulation board together.
A Hardware Store has a lot of materials that have texture and that makes unique and fun backgrounds. Think corrugated metal, wood veneers, and other lightweight materials that can be stored flat. Don’t forget to pick up some clamps- lots of clamps. You will find them invaluable in so many ways.
The Fabric Store is a playground for a photographer. Just wander around and let your creativity flow. If you choose a pattern, you will want your subject in a complimentary color with no pattern, so keep that in mind. If you choose a plain or simple fabric it may be more useful for more subjects. Every studio should also have several yards of white ripstop nylon. It can be used as both a background and as a light modifier. Finally, my friend, Jen Gentry has created a simple to build photographic background system that I recommend if you need a system that you can take to clients homes. The system, FlipIt requires a bit of assembly and a lot of creativity. It will also spark some ideas for other backgrounds you can create.