BetterPhoto Q&A
Category: New Questions

Photography Question 

How to Shoot Subject with Black Background

How does one shoot a subject (person/object) to create a black background effect? I DON'T WANT to carry around a black backdrop with me. I'm a beginner.

I have a FILM Canon EOS-3, Sekonic Light Meter L-358 & Canon 580 EX Flash. I just tried to create the effect, but it didn't work.

LIGHTING: natural light coming in thru window from the side.

WHAT I DID: The subject (stuffy) was laid on the carpet, I metered it and went 3 stops down (f-) using flash/& no flash...the carpet didn't come out as a black background.

Tried it with another subject (stuffy), sitting upright, and background still not black.

Also, when incident metering with Sekonic I'm coming up with a different reading than the camera. Which to go by? Also, what if incident metering subject not possible? Camera metering still ok?

I'm trying to achieve black background with a subject under controlled (at home)/non-controlled environment (wedding) settings.

To love this question, log in above
8/21/2005 9:09:58 AM

Alisha L. Ekstrom
BetterPhoto Member Since: 1/30/2005
  Hmmm..interesting...I'm just commenting on this to bring it back to the top of the threads...I'm interested to see if any of the pro's answer this question & know if this can be done or not??? Personally I just use a King Size black sheet...I'm still a beginner myself & that works for me with natural lighting. GOOD LUCK!!!

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 9:55:27 AM

Christopher A. Vedros
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/14/2005
If you scan & post examples of what you did, it will be a little easier to analyze it, but I think I know what the problem is.

If you're putting your subject right on top of your background (the carpet), it will be much more difficult to light the subject, without lighting the background as well.

If you can position your subject so that it is several feet away from the background (a wall would work better than the carpet in this case), then light falling on your subject should be different than light falling on your background. If you're using natural light, try to block the light that's falling on your subject from reaching the background.

If you're using flash, set your camera on manual and your flash on Auto. Try 1/100 sec @ f8. Meter the background to be sure that it is several stops underexposed at that exposure setting. Take your picture, then bracket for a stop or two less exposure (f11, f16). With this method, you're letting your TTL flash do the work of exposing the subject, without letting ambient light expose the background.

BTW Alisha, I'm not a pro, just trying to help. I bought my black king size sheet at Wal-Mart for about $12.98.


To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 10:34:24 AM

Alisha L. Ekstrom
BetterPhoto Member Since: 1/30/2005
  LOL...Funny Chris...BUT you definitely understand everyone's questions better than I...I don't get all the lighting stuff quite yet except for natural lighting!!! I take the long route...PHOTOSHOP editing...I too bought my sheet from Wal-Mart..haha!! WORKS GREAT!!!:):)

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 10:39:37 AM

Cali    Chris -
Thank you. I think what I did wrong was having the natural light fall onto the subject, even though I went 3 stops down. I will try this again. I'm using a film camera.

Another question Chris -

How would you create a black background effect during a wedding that's eitherbe indoors or outdoors? (This would make it impossible to meter using a hand held & placing a black sheet behind the subject(s) during a wedding).

Any help again much appreciated.

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 2:21:21 PM

Kerry L. Walker   Cali, I am not sure you understood Chris' response. (Either that or I am reading your response incorrectly.) You don't need to be 3 stops underexposed. You need the background to be 3 stops underexposed compared to the subject. Remember, the exposure latitude for film is usually about 2 stops for underexposure, so if the background is 3 stops underexposed, it should come out black. The problem was, as Chris stated, your subject was too close to the background. It needs to be several feet away from the background. Your flash will get its reading off the subject and shut off before it lights the background. Light falls off dramatically as the distance from the flash increases. You might want to consider forcing your flash into a wide angle mode, regardless of the lens you are using. This will make the light fall off even more quickly.
You can get a black background at a wedding the same way. It is really easy if it is outside after dark. If it is still light, you won't get it. There is no flash that can overpower the light from the sun. Inside, it may be a little more difficult, depending on the ambient light. I am not really sure you would want that effect at a wedding though, at least not with the groom in the picture. His tux would blend too much into the background.

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 2:42:51 PM

Cali    I metered the subject with my light meter (read the f-stop) and went 3 stops down.

Thank you for pointing that out Kerry. I think that's my other goof. I metered the wrong should've been the background.

I'm getting more help and feedback from the readers here than expected and REALLY appreciate it. I'm a beginner & am still learning, yet I want to try all the diff. techniques seen by other prof. photographers so the pics are more interesting/creative than a typical point/shoot camera style look.

Kerry - say the guy is in a tux and the bride in white, how would you get the black background effect but the tux still visible somewhat?

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 2:59:48 PM

Kerry L. Walker   If you are trying to make the couple stand out from the background, don't worry about trying to make it go black. Just use a large aperature for limited DOF. If you are using flash, your background will be somewhat underexposed but not so much that the tux will blend into the shadows. When I shoot a wedding, I often set up slave flashes to do the opposite of what you are trying to do. I want some light in the background. I will use variations in DOF to make the couple stand out.

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 3:08:24 PM

Christopher A. Vedros
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/14/2005
  Thanks for the clarification, Kerry. I got distracted at work while I was typing the answer.


There should have been another paragraph between the natural light part and the flash part explaining about metering the subject AND the background and trying to get at least a 3-stop difference between the two.

Teamwork. Kerry, next time you run out of coffee and start talking crazy, don't worry, I've got your back.

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 5:43:41 PM

Christopher A. Vedros
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/14/2005
  More technical difficulties.

I should have used () instead of these <>

After my statement about being distracted at work, I said "Don't you hate when people interrupt your Q&A session and ask you to do actual work?"

Of course, my comic timing is completely thrown off now.

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 6:36:04 PM

Kerry L. Walker   Thanks, man. You cover my back and I'll go for more coffee.

To love this comment, log in above
8/22/2005 7:43:37 PM

Log in to respond or ask your own question.