How to shoot Black Objects on Black Backgrounds - Digital Photography School
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How to shoot Black Objects on Black Backgrounds

In my last post, I talked about using a DIY blue gel to add interest to a portrait by lighting the background. This time I’ve added a DIY orange gel, and used the same Gary Fong Powersnoot for some product photography. This is a three-light setup.

Photo of a Canon EOS 5D MkIII on a black background

Exposure: 1/200, f/14, ISO 100
Camera: Canon EOS 5D MkII
Lens: Canon EF24-70mm f/2.8L @ 60mm

When shooting a dark colored object against a dark background, one challenge is that the edges of the object tend to get lost in the background. Here are two ways to deal with this:

1. Light the background to add separation. This it the technique I used in my last post.

2. Use rim lighting to clearly define the edges of the object, as shown in the photo above.

The key to this kind of rim lighting is hard, directional light, so that the light goes exactly where you want it, and nowhere else. Good lighting is often about what not to light, as much as it is about what to light.

Set Diagram

Photo lighting diagram

Main Light: Canon 430EX II @ 1/2 power into 70cm white bounce umbrella just outside the frame to camera left

Rim Lights: 2 x Canon 430EX II @ 1/2 power into Gary Fong Powersnoots with grids a back left and right

I triggered the flashes with the Canon ST-E2.

Gary Fong Powersnoot with DIY orange gel

Background: Black curtain about 1.5 meters behind the camera. The distance is important. If the background is too close, it will pick up some light from the main source and not appear totally black. Get your background cloth as far away as possible if you’re going for a pure black background.

The camera is sitting on a small square of black plexiglass (aka perspex) that I picked up at a local home improvement store.

Start With the Rim Light

To get the orange and blue highlights and the reflection right, I started with the gridded snoots. I shot a few frames and made small adjustments until I was happy with the look. Then I added the main light. It helps to build your lighting set up piece by piece.

Setup photo showing only the rim light

Once I was happy with the rim lighting, I added the main flash, in the 70cm umbrella. Here I was looking for two things. First I wanted a nice catchlight on the lens. Second, I wanted enough light on the 5D logo on the top right side of the camera body. The umbrella is located just outside the frame on the left side, a little above, and angled down toward the 5D MkIII.

You don’t need a lot of space for a shot like this – I made this photo in my living room. The perspex is sitting on the coffee table, and the black curtain is draped over our TV.

I hope this article has given you a few useful ideas for lighting black objects against black backgrounds. I’d love you hear your comments, and as always, feel free to contact me on Facebook or Google+.

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Jason Weddington is passionate photographer and the creator of PhotoQueue.com, a service that helps photographers maintain their online presence by scheduling uploads to Flickr and 500px. PhotoQueue will soon add support for Facebook, and Tumblr. You can connect with Jason on Google+, Facebook, or Flickr. Jason is also an Associate member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

  • Bruno

    … it seems so simple, when someone shows you how to do it :)
    At least, until you try… :D
    Thank you very much for sharing your technique, so interesting and useful.

  • Scottc

    I’ve never thought of shooting black objects on a black background, interesting article.

    I’ll have to add a new combination to my light box project.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157632177265945/

  • George Suresh

    This is an informative, useful and brilliantly illustrated article. The set up shots combined with the illustrations and tech specs make understanding this complex process quite simple and inspiring.

    Thanks Jason and DPS for sharing :o)

    George S.

  • Craig

    Would the same setup apply to photographing black pets? I had a Black Labrador that was always a chore to photograph and since she passed I now have a stray black cat that adopted me. Darn cute animal but just as hard to photograph.

  • http://jasonweddington.com Jason Weddington

    @bruno – it takes a little practice, and some trial and error to get the light right. Give it a try!
    @scotttc – thanks, I think I’ve said it before, but I like that M&Ms shot of yours.

    @craig – yes, rim lighting would work for pets, and might bring out some nice detail in the fur.

  • Sharon

    Same – about the black dogs…. I have a black Chinese Crested and have sooo much trouble photographing him even without a black background – but I am an amateur. Would love to know how to take photos of black pets – I also take volunteer photos at the local animal shelter and again, hard to get the black pets looking schmick – their faces just blend into their hair.

  • Petra

    That is great if you are photographing subjects that don’t move and give you the time to experiment, how would you do this if you wanted to photograph black children without using the flash units????

  • Tom

    what about white products on white backgrounds? like pillows on a bed in a white room…?

  • http://jasonweddington.com Jason Weddington

    @Sharon – try a flash off the camera, or possibly bounced off the ceiling. The goal is to try to light from above or from the side to define shape better.

    @Petra – regarding time to experiment, try getting everything set up and working with a subject that doesn’t move, like a teddy bear sitting on a chair or some such thing. Once you have your lights set up, then send the kids in. I’m not sure what you mean about not using flash units, this entire setup is using flashes.

  • Petra

    I meant continues lighting. I have two soft boxes that give 2500 W in total, but it’s still not enough so I am wondering how much more do I need to be able to shoot at least 1/30 second /ISO 400 and A-4

  • http://jasonweddington.com Jason Weddington

    @Petra – Two soft boxes with a total of 2500W should be plenty of light. How close are your lights to the subjects? Try moving them as close as you can, without them being in the frame. Can you post a test shot somewhere and send me a link?

    Take a look at the “Exposure Factor Relationship Chart B” here: http://www.fredparker.com/ultexp1.htm

    At 1/30 f/4 ISO 400 you only need light at EV7. That’s pretty dark. Even with losing some light to diffusion in the soft box, you should have enough light to get a good exposure.

  • http://jasonweddington.com Jason Weddington

    @Tom – great question, you’ve piqued by curiosity. I’ll give that a try and consider it for a future post. My initial thought is that you’ll want a combination of backlighting and side lighting to create enough shadows to define the shapes.

  • Francis Teo

    Thank you for the clear explanation. Very beautiful shot.

  • Gaz

    I love the idea of this and will more than likely have to run out and get some black acrylic now. A question that popped into my head whilst reading though is, do you not find that light from your bounce umbrella spills onto the background as it is firing that direction? How do you avoid this? Is it firing across the diagonal?

  • gigi

    This is why he says that you have to place the background at a distance to prevent this from occurring.

    “Black curtain about 1.5 meters behind the camera. The distance is
    important. If the background is too close, it will pick up some light
    from the main source and not appear totally black. Get your background
    cloth as far away as possible if you’re going for a pure black
    background.”

  • Gaz

    Thanks Gigi…. I guess I will have a little play about with it and see how it goes. My only concern was that even at 1.5m if the main umbrella light is firing directly towards the background that it might pick up some overspill. I guess the best way to see for myself is to set it up and see what happens though :-)

  • Gagan Sapra

    This is what i got after reading this tutorial

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gagansapra/12680301764/

  • Beshoy Maurice

    please i would like to know how the far edge of the black perspex dont apper in the feame?

  • Beshoy Maurice

    please i would like to know how the far edge of the black perspex dont apper in the frame?see moresee more

Some older comments

  • Francis Teo

    March 28, 2013 02:35 am

    Thank you for the clear explanation. Very beautiful shot.

  • Jason Weddington

    December 11, 2012 01:24 pm

    @Tom - great question, you've piqued by curiosity. I'll give that a try and consider it for a future post. My initial thought is that you'll want a combination of backlighting and side lighting to create enough shadows to define the shapes.

  • Jason Weddington

    December 9, 2012 10:38 am

    @Petra - Two soft boxes with a total of 2500W should be plenty of light. How close are your lights to the subjects? Try moving them as close as you can, without them being in the frame. Can you post a test shot somewhere and send me a link?

    Take a look at the "Exposure Factor Relationship Chart B" here: http://www.fredparker.com/ultexp1.htm

    At 1/30 f/4 ISO 400 you only need light at EV7. That's pretty dark. Even with losing some light to diffusion in the soft box, you should have enough light to get a good exposure.

  • Petra

    December 9, 2012 07:34 am

    I meant continues lighting. I have two soft boxes that give 2500 W in total, but it's still not enough so I am wondering how much more do I need to be able to shoot at least 1/30 second /ISO 400 and A-4

  • Jason Weddington

    December 8, 2012 10:49 am

    @Sharon - try a flash off the camera, or possibly bounced off the ceiling. The goal is to try to light from above or from the side to define shape better.

    @Petra - regarding time to experiment, try getting everything set up and working with a subject that doesn't move, like a teddy bear sitting on a chair or some such thing. Once you have your lights set up, then send the kids in. I'm not sure what you mean about not using flash units, this entire setup is using flashes.

  • Tom

    December 7, 2012 04:05 pm

    what about white products on white backgrounds? like pillows on a bed in a white room...?

  • Petra

    December 7, 2012 09:21 am

    That is great if you are photographing subjects that don't move and give you the time to experiment, how would you do this if you wanted to photograph black children without using the flash units????

  • Sharon

    December 7, 2012 09:08 am

    Same - about the black dogs.... I have a black Chinese Crested and have sooo much trouble photographing him even without a black background - but I am an amateur. Would love to know how to take photos of black pets - I also take volunteer photos at the local animal shelter and again, hard to get the black pets looking schmick - their faces just blend into their hair.

  • Jason Weddington

    December 7, 2012 08:59 am

    @bruno - it takes a little practice, and some trial and error to get the light right. Give it a try!
    @scotttc - thanks, I think I've said it before, but I like that M&Ms shot of yours.

    @craig - yes, rim lighting would work for pets, and might bring out some nice detail in the fur.

  • Craig

    December 7, 2012 03:52 am

    Would the same setup apply to photographing black pets? I had a Black Labrador that was always a chore to photograph and since she passed I now have a stray black cat that adopted me. Darn cute animal but just as hard to photograph.

  • George Suresh

    December 6, 2012 07:46 pm

    This is an informative, useful and brilliantly illustrated article. The set up shots combined with the illustrations and tech specs make understanding this complex process quite simple and inspiring.

    Thanks Jason and DPS for sharing :o)

    George S.

  • Scottc

    December 6, 2012 10:26 am

    I've never thought of shooting black objects on a black background, interesting article.

    I'll have to add a new combination to my light box project.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157632177265945/

  • Bruno

    December 6, 2012 04:27 am

    ... it seems so simple, when someone shows you how to do it :)
    At least, until you try... :D
    Thank you very much for sharing your technique, so interesting and useful.

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