(I recently answered this question on Quora – feel free to discuss this answer there as well)
The full question is: What are some cheap alternatives to professional photography backdrops?
Short answer – you can use pretty much anything.
Long answer – anything you can work with if you know what to do with it.
Not being a full time photographer puts a lot of strain on my options. I can’t always afford to use a professional studio. I can’t always buy any kind of supply I need for my shoots. A lot of times I have to make do with what I have.
You can use folded white bed sheets for solid white background. Better if they are pressed (see problematic spots on the right in the image below) or you can work around it using short depth of field to blow them out of focus (may not work due to short distance to subject).
If you have a spare $50 – you can buy a few foam core sheets at your local Staples/Office Depot (you’ll need one or two if you are shooting portraits, you’ll need more if you’re shooting half or full body). A lot of professionals are actually using them because it’s cheaper than anything with the word “professional” in it.
Alternatively, a lot of bathrooms offer white painted or tiled walls. I’ve shot in plenty of hotel rooms – by lighting them in a specific way you can get anywhere from overexposed white to underexposed gray colors.
Another white alternative is overexposed sky. Put your subject against an open sky, lit it properly – and you’ll have even white background behind.
Black foam core boards can serve as black background. Alternatively – shoot at night with your subject’s back to the darkest background you can find (large window or door). In most cases you should be able to get background close to black while keeping your subject lit.
Any painted wall without major color discrepancies would do the trick. Properly blown out of focus it can give you a nice one-tone backdrop.
Same with the floor – a lot of times a floor would be much more monotone than walls.
Last, but not least – you can make a one-time investment into a chroma key background. With that and a knowledge on how to separate your subject from the background you should be able to superimpose your subject into just about anything.
At the end of the day – it’s experience and knowledge of how photography works that can help you figure out your options. Did you know you can build your own beauty dish for under $10?