Photographs of subjects in front of a black background are extremely appealing and pleasing to look at.
A darker background can help highlight the subject, and catch the viewer’s attention exactly as intended. Many novice photographers assume that creating a black background lies in using a black wall, cloth, or backdrop.
The truth, however, is that there are a lot more details that go into creating the appropriate background and that the steps to achieve them may differ for different scenarios. Perhaps the most crucial aspect would be to understand light and how it can interact with the numerous elements of a photograph.
Let’s dive right in and understand the intricacies of creating a black background.
What Affects a Black Background
Often, what our eyes see, and what our cameras records can be quite different. The human eye can see a far wider range of light and discern more hues and tones than a camera can capture in a single exposure. It is, therefore, crucial to understand the numerous facets that affect the background in photographs.
In short, the more light that there is on the subject, the easier it is to get the background very dark. Too much light on the subject, however, may cause the colors to look washed out in the photo. Striking the right balance is key.
Black Background Exposure Settings
Playing around with the camera settings can bring in the illusion of a dark backdrop for your photos. Setting the ISO to the lowest possible level and the shutter speed to the highest level will ensure that the least amount of light will reach the sensor.
As one would expect, having a white background when aiming for a black background will be counterproductive. Darker backdrops are preferred since they make it much easier for a photographer to create a black background.
A number of software tools such as Lightroom and Photoshop can tremendously aid in achieving the exact result that you have in mind when shooting a scene. Knowing how to use the various features and options offered by these tools is crucial for any photographer.
Black Background Understanding Light
Looking at how light interacts and falls on the subject is paramount in setting up a shot that will have something closer to a dark background. There are, however, certain specific aspects that you must keep in mind that can go a long way in setting up black background portraits. Here is a more detailed look into each of them.
Recognizing Appropriate Lighting Conditions
Most modern digital cameras have an expansive dynamic range. This allows us to take photographs that have significantly more detail, especially in the highlights and shadows departments. Cameras are slowly advancing to the point where they can accurately capture exactly what the eye sees. Perceiving how light hits the subject differently as compared to the background is crucial. You must try to abstract out some of the details that you can see, and instead, try to imagine how the camera sees. Although much easier said than done, this is an incredibly useful skill for almost any type of photography.
Go one step ahead and think about how you can post-process the shot that you are about to take. Making some modifications to the scene can help with post-processing and potentially save you a great deal of time.
Squinting to Estimate Contrast
Surprisingly, squinting is a technique millions of photographers use to observe the highlights of a scene. The detail in the darker areas blurs out, and it gives you a preview of what the photograph may potentially look like. Excess or subpar contrast will stand out and you can appropriately make changes to the lighting and scene to get the desired results.
Black Background Natural Lighting
Many photographers often prefer natural lighting due to the warm and pleasing tone that gives to the subjects. If shooting indoors, it is important to ensure that the subject is close to the natural light source – a window or open door. All other sources of light, both artificial and natural, must be closed or switched off. The room must be as dark as possible for the intended effect.
Black Backgrounds in Natural Settings
Finding everyday settings to make black background portraits requires a keen eye. It may be someone standing in front of a dark doorway, or in front of a large building that blocks light from above. If you look out for locations with dark backgrounds, you can find spots where very little light spills to the background. Partial black backgrounds also work wonderfully and can sometimes lead to pleasing and rewarding results.
Black Background Technique Outdoor
With some camera wizardry and techniques, it is possible to capture photographs outdoors that seem like they have a black backdrop. Surprisingly, this technique does not require a collapsible backdrop at all, and works extremely well! You can now capture photos that you only thought were possible in a studio at any location, giving you a lot of flexibility and freedom.
The goal is to ensure the camera only captures the minimal light introduced in the form of a Speedlight flash or external flash. By avoiding the camera from picking up any of the natural and ambient light, it gives the photo the illusion of having a black background. All you will need is a camera that can be operated in a manual mode, and also has the feature to turn off the flash. Here are the steps to this incredibly handy technique.
Step 1 – Manual Mode
Put your camera into the manual mode. If your camera does not have a manual mode, then this technique will not work. Most modern DSLRs have a manual mode feature, while pocket cameras and SLR cameras are ruled out. The idea is to be in control of all the settings available, such as aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. You are in charge of adjusting these settings for the perfect shot rather than the camera telling you what it thinks is best for the picture being taken.
Step 2 – ISO for Black Background
Set your camera to the lowest ISO setting. The ISO setting tells us how sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light. A lower number such as 400 means that it is significantly less sensitive to light as compared to say, 1600. A higher ISO also introduces more graining and noise to the photo, especially in the darker regions. Since our goal is to create a black backdrop, we want to keep the ISO low. Many DSLRs can go as low as 100 or 200 ISO, and these cameras are barely sensitive to any light and also have minimal graining or noise.
Step 3 – Shutter Speed
Next up is selecting the shutter speed. You must set the camera to its optimal or maximum sync speed. The flash sync speed is the maximum shutter speed at which the flash and camera can sync. Typically, it is 1/200 or 1/250. For example, assume that the flash sync speed of your camera is 1/200. You set your camera shutter speed to 1/100. When you shoot a picture with the flash turned on, the shutter will close long before the flash is completely captured by the camera sensor. This results in black bands appearing on the photograph due to the shutter blocking out the flash. Hence, the possibility of using extremely high shutter speeds such as 1/6000 is ruled out since none of the light from the flash will hit the sensor. Sticking to the maximum sync speed, however, ensures that the camera and flash work perfectly in tandem.
Step 4 – Aperture
Aperture, often denoted by ‘f’ refers to the amount that the lens diaphragm open to allows light in. It is calibrated in terms of f/stops, where a higher f/stops leads to lesser exposure due to a smaller aperture. For beginners, selecting an aperture of f/5.6 is a good place to start. Take a photo of the subject, and see the results. Remember, the objective here is to see nothing on the camera’s display. If you do happen to see a bit of the subject, then it means that some natural or ambient light has crept in. You will have to reduce the aperture to allow lesser light to creep into your shots. This means changing the aperture from f/5.6 to f/8.0 and taking a photograph again to see the results. Keep changing the aperture until you are convinced that you see an absolutely black screen on the camera’s display.
Step 5 – Setting up the Flash
Now that you have set your camera, it is finally time to take your shot! Before that, however, you must set up the flash to highlight only your subject in the frames. The flash and modifier that you choose will depend on the type of shot you are going for. Typically, using something such as a 60″ reflective umbrella works wonders. It can give you excellent control of how much light should fall and where exactly it must be directed. Again, experience and intuition will help a great deal here, and it all just boils down to experimenting with the flash at various power levels. As you would expect, shutter speed controls the ambient light, while aperture controls the flash power. With both having been set manually, however, it is up to you to control the power fo the flash by physically adjusting it.
Step 6 – Triggering the Flash
Finally, since the technique requires the use of an ‘off-camera’ flash, you will need a way to trigger it. A number of options are available. Radio triggers would be your best choice, although they can be quite expensive. Sync leads, which physically connect the flash and the camera, infrared triggers, ‘Pop-Up’ flashes with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) are viable alternatives.
Bonus Tip: If you are using this technique with a Speedlight (also known as a flashgun or an add-on flash) outdoors on a sunny afternoon, the aperture may have to really small, something along the lines of f/22. The average Speedlight will not be powerful enough to activate the sensor. You can either find a partially covered or shaded area, or better still, wait for the light to die down a little. If you must do it on an afternoon on a bright and sunny day, you will need much more powerful lighting, which costs a lot more money.
Black Background Technique Indoor
Taking indoor photographs with a black background without using a black backdrop is fairly simple as long as you understand the idea of what you’re trying to do. While being in a studio where you can completely control the source of light is ideal, this technique works well in any type of indoor setting.
Step 1 – Underexpose Everything
This is only possible if you have a camera that has a manual mode. You must choose your settings such that the least amount of light reaches the camera sensor. Just as with the technique for getting black backgrounds outdoors, changing the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed settings will be necessary. Bring up the histogram features on your camera. It is usually present under the playback settings of the camera. The histogram tells you which color ranges dominate in the photograph. If the histogram is well spread out it means that there is a wide color range in the picture. The goal is to ensure that all the pixels are towards the far left of the histogram, which implies that almost all the pixels are black. The more pixels you get on the left extreme of the histogram, the darker your background will be.
Step 2 – Light the Subject
Once you have figured out the settings and exposure to take your shot, it is time to light the subject. The subject can anything from a small handheld product to a life-sized portrait. The main goal here is to ensure that the light is enough for the camera’s sensor to pick it up, without letting any of it spill onto the background. The simplest way to do this is to keep sufficient distance between the subject and the background. Controlling all the sources of artificial light will also help.
Bonus tips: Use light sources that are of comparable size to the subject. For example, using a full-sized strobe for a small product will surely result in some light spillage. You can also use multiple light sources of different colors to add some atmosphere and character to your photos. Just ensure that it doesn’t spill over to the background, and you’ll be good to go.
Step 3 – Play around with the Settings
Keep playing around with your camera’s settings and manipulate the light sources by changing the distances and angles until you figure out what works best. If the subject seems too bright, increase the shutter speed and reduce the aperture. If the subject seems too dark, increase the intensity of your light source.
Bonus tip: Certain cameras have a high dynamic range (HDR) setting that allows them to handle both dark as well as light areas quite well. Despite making the changes to the usual settings, you may see that the background never appears dark enough. Chances are that the HDR setting is turned on. Switching it off should give you the effect that you desire.
Remember, you cannot achieve a ‘pure black’ backdrop. Regardless of how you change your settings and the lighting, your camera will still pick up some minute light differences. In fact, if you brighten up your image with a supposedly black background, some details of the background will be visible. Achieving a pure black from the darkened photographs is possible using software tools such as Photoshop.
Obtaining a Black Background with Lightroom and Photoshop
In some scenarios, the light value falling on the subject may not be too different from that of the background. Manipulating light using software tools to make the background darker is the only solution in such cases. Our eyes always gravitate towards the light parts of a photograph. If any light regions or objects are visible in the background, it can be quite distracting and take attention away from your subject. Here are some of the controls in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop that can be used to tweak the backgrounds.
For Indoor and Studio Shots
For most indoor and studio photos, post-processing will be comparatively less. The amount of processing and editing needed depends on the dynamic range of your camera. Take a look at the background of the image you are working on, and see how much darker you would need it. If you’ve already followed the steps to creating a black background and are happy with the result, you’re in luck, If you need to modify the background only a little bit, just adjusting the slides for the shadows and blacks controls will give you the look that you want. This is usually only possible with photographs taken indoors in a studio since you have complete control over the lighting and the background is more likely to be a uniform black.
For Outdoor Shots
Photographs taken outdoors may need a bit more editing work since the natural and ambient light is not something you can really control to a large extent. Sometimes a certain part of the background will be reflecting light. At other times, the background may have slightly different shades. Luckily for you, the brush and burn tools are extremely effective in such images.
The brush tool in Adobe Lightroom is one of the powerful editing tools that you have in your arsenal. It allows you to adjust numerous parameters, such as the balance, sharpness, contrast, exposure, and so on. The brush tool can be used to darken areas of the background that are too bright. Set the exposure slider all the way to the extreme left or right and paint over the regions you are not happy with. Doing so results in an extreme effect, but it is only to allow you to see where it is you are painting. Once you have finished using the tool to edit the areas that need modification, readjust the exposure slider to a level that gives you the best result.
The burn tool in Adobe Photoshop is another extremely effective tool for creating black backgrounds. Start off with setting the exposure of the tool to a very low level, such as 10 percent. Higher exposure makes the effect a bit too severe and will be challenging to use appropriately. Then set the range of the burn tool to shadows. This setting allows you to affect the darker areas of the image much more than the lighter regions, exactly what you need for a black background. A bit of overlap onto the subject will not affect it much when it is set to shadows, giving you some leeway when using the tool. The combination of the range being set to shadows and low exposure allows you to easily darken out all the lighter areas of the background.
Manipulation using Lightroom and Photoshop can be extremely powerful, as long as you don’t go overboard with any setting or tool. Using a combination of tools to achieve the result that you have in mind is always the best way to move forward, rather than overutilizing a single tool. You can avoid quality deterioration, and obtain very satisfactory results.
The truth is most photography hinges on the manipulation and utilization of light. Black background photography isn’t any different. Once you have a clear understanding of how you can create the effect of a dark background, just keep your eyes open. Look for situations where there is significantly more light on the subject than the background. Observe the shadows in the scene, and how light falls on the various elements. Finally, just follow the steps explained previously and give it a try! Before you know it, black background photography will be second nature to you!
See more examples of photos with a black background here.
Featured photo by Evan Dvorkin on Unsplash