Photographs of subjects in front of a black background are flattering. These photos forge a sense of mystery and boldness. The pure raw imagery of an image against a black background is a wonder.
A dark background can help highlight the subject and catch the viewer’s attention. Many beginner photographers think they need a black backdrop. This isn’t always the case. Using your camera settings, location, and little magic, you can create the illusion of such.
The truth is there are many ways of creating a black background. The steps to achieve it may differ for different scenarios. It’s key to know how light works and interacts with surrounding elements.
Think back to when photos only originated in black and white. Sure life was and is in color, but film photography for years was only black and white. Filmmakers and photographers had to have a great understanding of light. Knowing how light would affect a model with dark hair versus blond. How a window in a dark room cast light. Experimenting and studying light and the different variations of such is crucial.
With the development of technology and modern-day cameras, using light is interesting. It still takes a keen eye to capture that strong image, but the camera can help.
Let’s dive right in and understand the principles of creating a black background.
Video: How to Create a Black Background in Any Location
Watch this great video tutorial with portrait photographer and best-selling author Glyn Dewis. This video gives you a visual of how Dewis produces amazing black background photos. Be sure to write down your takeaways and apply them to your images!
Basic Principles for Obtaining a Black Background
The human eye can see a wider range of color and light compared to a camera. It can distinguish more hues and tones than a camera can capture in a single exposure.
Your camera is the eye of the beholder. It’s crucial to know the many aspects that affect the background in photographs in raw form. Seeing the location and subject in plain view will provide an advantage when you take photos.
Black Background vs White Background
Having a white background may seem counterproductive.
By intuition, darker backdrops are more interesting and vibrant. They make it much easier for a photographer to create a black background. But as we’ll see you don’t need them.
In contrast, white backgrounds tend to be a good option for simple photography. Headshots and product photos stand out with a white backdrop. Light is key when using a white background, otherwise, your images could look dull and muddy.
In short, the more light that there is on the subject, the easier it is to get a dark background on camera.
But, too much light on the subject may cause the colors to look washed out in the photo. Striking the right balance is key.
Camera Settings Affects the Background
Playing around with the camera settings can bring in the illusion of a dark backdrop for your photos.
Set the ISO to the lowest possible value. This decreases the sensitivity to light in the camera.
Set the shutter speed to the highest value possible. Doing so will ensure the least amount of light will reach the sensor.
Set your camera to an aperture of f/5.6. Check the camera screen. What do you see? Do you see a dark background? If the answer is no, and a plain background appears, use your flash. Doing this will bring your subject forward from the plain background.
If the background isn’t as dark as you want, decrease the aperture to f/8.
Note-when shooting indoors with a flash, the light can be your foe. The flash can highlight elements in the room that you wish not to have in your image. Be aware of your surroundings in this case.
Photo editing software can help. It makes your life easier when trying to achieve the exact result you have in mind. Post-processing software helps to give any effect you want or need in the final stages of your photos.
Knowing how to use these tools is crucial for any photographer. We’ll explore it down below.
Understanding Light to Get a Black Background
To get a black background you must look at how light interacts and falls on the subject. Let’s take portraits as examples.
There are specific aspects to 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.
Looking for the Right Lighting Conditions
You won’t always be able to get a black background. All scenes are different.
Cameras have advanced to the point where they can capture what the eye sees. So perceiving in advance how light hits the subject as compared to the background is crucial.
Try to abstract out some of the details you can see, then imagine how the camera sees the scene. It’s easier than it seems and if you’re able to estimate if there will be enough contrast in the final image.
Go one step ahead and think about how you will post-process the photo. We’ll talk more about the post-processing phase shortly.
Black Background Photos Outdoor
Capturing portraits outdoors that seem as if they have a black backdrop is not hard. You only need some camera magic and proper techniques.
You will soon capture outdoor photos that you only thought were possible in a studio. But with more flexibility and freedom.
The goal is to avoid the camera from picking up any natural and ambient light. By doing so you’ll create a photo with the illusion of having a black background.
All you need is a camera that allows you to use manual mode.
Here are the steps you need to follow to get a black background outdoors.
Related article: Aesthetic photography
Step 1 – Choose The Right Location
To make your life easier look for locations with dark or shaded backgrounds. You can find spots where very little light hits the background. Think about dark wooded areas or the time of day. Under bridges, between buildings.
If you’re indoors, think about what is in the room. Do you need to close doors and draw the blinds? Make sure there aren’t any shiny fabrics in your shot. This can give off unwanted light to the subject of your focus.
It doesn’t need to be completely dark. Give it some time. The more practice you have, the more you can pick out the perfect areas for dark background photos.
Step 2 – Use Manual Mode
Put your camera into manual mode and experiment. A rule of thumb for most photographers is to take test shots. Whether you’re trying to determine light, contrast, or get a feel for your camera, take a raw shot first. Look at the screen. What do you see? In manual mode, you have all the control.
The idea is to control all the settings available, such as aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. So you’ll decide the exposure rather than let the camera tell you what it thinks is best for the picture.
Step 3 – 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 100 or 200, makes your camera sensor less sensitive to light than ISO 4000, for example.
A higher ISO also introduces more grain to the photo, especially in darker areas. Since our goal is to create a black backdrop, we want to keep the ISO low.
Many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can go as low as 100 or 200 ISO. At the base ISO value of 100, you will get the sharpest results.
Step 4 – Shutter Speed for Black Background
Next up is selecting the shutter speed. You must set the camera to its optimal or fastest sync speed.
The flash sync speed is the fastest shutter speed at which the flash and camera can sync. These speeds are 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.
Shoot a picture with the flash turned on. The shutter closes long before the sensor can capture all the light emitted by the flash.
Doing this results in black bands appearing on the image due to the shutter blocking out the flash. Hence, you should avoid using too fast shutter speeds such as 1/4000, or none of the flash’s light will hit the sensor.
Sticking to the optimal sync speed ensures that the camera and flash work in tandem.
Step 5 – Aperture
Aperture refers to the amount of light that the lens allows to hit the sensor.
It’s measured using f-stops or f-numbers. A higher f-stop leads to a darker image due to a smaller aperture. For beginners, selecting an aperture of f/5.6 is an excellent place to start.
Take a photo of the subject, and see the results. Remember, the aim 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. In that case, reduce the aperture by selecting a higher f-number.
For example, change the aperture from f/5.6 to f/11.0 and retake the photograph.
Now check the results. Keep changing the aperture until you see a pitch-black screen on the camera’s display.
Step 6 – Setting up the Flash
But before, you must set up the flash to highlight only your subject in the frame. The flash and modifier that you choose will depend on the type of shot you want to take.
Using something such as a 60″ reflective umbrella works wonders. It can give you excellent control of how much light should fall and how to direct it.
Again, experience and intuition will help a great deal here. It all boils down to experimenting with the flash at various power levels. Remember, shutter speed controls the ambient light, while aperture controls the flash power.
But, since you’ve set up both in manual mode, it is up to you to control the flash’s power by adjusting it.
Step 7 – Triggering the Flash
Finally, you will need a way to trigger the off-camera flash.
Several options are available.
Radio triggers would be your best choice, although they can be quite expensive. Other alternatives are sync leads, infrared triggers, and ‘pop-up’ flashes.
Bonus Tip: If you are using a Speedlight (also known as a flashgun or an add-on flash) on a sunny day, use a small aperture. Choose a value of f/22.
The average Speedlight will not be powerful enough to activate the sensor. You can either find a covered or shaded area or, better, wait for the light to die down a little.
If you are shooting in the afternoon on a bright and sunny day, you will need much more powerful lighting.
Black Background Technique Indoor
Taking indoor black background photos without using a black backdrop is simple. You only need to understand the principle of what you’re trying to do.
While being in a studio would be ideal, this technique works well in any indoor setting.
Step 1 – Underexpose Everything
Underexposing the entire scene is only possible if you have a camera that has a manual mode or program mode.
You must choose your settings such that the least amount of light reaches the camera sensor. Like what you would outdoors, you’ll change the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.
Bring up the histogram on your camera.
The histogram tells you which color ranges dominate in the photograph. If the histogram is well spread out, there is a high dynamic range in the picture.
The goal is to ensure that all the pixels are towards the histogram’s far left. As a result, almost all the pixels are black. The more pixels you get on the left extreme of the histogram, the darker your background will be.
Related article: How to Read Your Camera Histogram
Step 2 – Light the Subject
Now that you have set your camera, it is time to light the subject. The subject can be anything from a small product to a model. The subject is your central focus. Let the light shine upon them!
Use Natural Lighting When Possible
Many photographers prefer natural lighting due to the warm and smooth effect. It is crucial to ensure that the subject is close to the natural light source – a window or open door.
Switch off all other sources of light, both artificial and natural. The room must be as dark as possible for the intended effect.
Your goal is to have enough light for the sensor to pick it up without letting any light hit the background. The simplest way to do this is to keep enough distance between the subject and the background. If needed, bring your subject forward more.
Bonus tips if you use artificial light: Use light sources that are of comparable size to the subject. For example, using a full-sized strobe for a small product will result in some light spillage.
Step 3 – Play Around With the Settings
Keep playing around with your camera settings. Manipulate the light sources by changing the distances and angles. Try to figure out what works best.
If the subject seems too bright, increase the shutter speed, and reduce the aperture. If it’s too dark, increase the intensity of your light source.
Bonus tip: Certain cameras have a high dynamic range (HDR) setting. HDR allows them to handle both dark and light areas quite well. If, after changing settings, the background is not dark enough, HDR might be active. 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 minimal light differences.
Don’t forget to use post-processing tools to achieve a pure black background. Lightroom or Photoshop are great options.
Obtaining a Black Background with Lightroom and Photoshop
In some cases, the light value falling on the subject may not be too different from the background.
Using software to make the background darker is the only solution in such cases.
You have to avoid light areas and visible objects in the background. In such cases, it can be quite distracting and take attention away from your subject.
Thank goodness for technology right!
Post-Processing Indoor and Studio Shots
For most indoor and studio photos, post-processing will be 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. Adjusting the slides for the shadows and blacks controls will give you the effect you want.
Doing so is easy with photographs taken indoors or in a studio. The reason is you have complete control over the lighting. The background is more likely to be a uniform black.
Post-Processing Outdoor Shots
Photographs taken outdoors may need a bit more editing work. The natural and ambient light is not something you can control to a large extent.
Sometimes a particular part of the background will be reflecting light. At other times, the backdrop may have different shades. Luckily for you, the brush and burn tools are useful in such images.
The brush tool in Adobe Lightroom is one of the powerful editing tools you have in your arsenal. It allows you to adjust many parameters. You can control the balance, sharpness, contrast, exposure, and so on.
You can use the brush tool to darken areas of the background that are too bright. Set the exposure slider to the extreme left or right and paint over the regions you want to darken. Doing so results in a drastic effect, but it is only to allow you to see where you are painting.
Once you have finished editing, readjust the exposure slider.
The burn tool in Adobe Photoshop is another handy tool for black backgrounds. Start with setting a very low exposure value. Higher exposure makes the effect a bit too hard.
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. What you need for a black background.
Don’t Overdo It
Manipulation using Lightroom and Photoshop can be powerful. But don’t go overboard with it.
Using different methods to achieve the result you have in mind is always best. So you can avoid quality deterioration and get very satisfactory results.
The goal is to stay true to the original photo but enhance.
Beautiful Black Background Photos for Your Inspiration
Some Last Tidbits…
The truth is most photography relies on the manipulation 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, keep your eyes open.
Look for situations where there is more light on the subject than the background. Observe the shadows in the scene and how light falls on the various elements.
Finally, follow the steps explained here and give it a try!
Before you know it, black background photography will be second nature to you! It could even be your favorite!
See more examples of photos with a black background here.
Featured photo by Evan Dvorkin on Unsplash
Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.