How to Create Portraits with a Black Background

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Who does not love a crisp, deep black background for a portrait? You can achieve this with the application of just two ideas, and just a little post-processing too.

black background

We are talking about a couple of techy things in hopefully, a non-techy way. These two ideas will give you tips for how to make black backgrounds for your portraits.

No calculations necessary

As an erstwhile teacher of Mathematics, I should not apologize for numbers, should I? There is quite a lot of Mathematics in photography. However, you may be pleased to know that I think you can achieve everything, without thinking much beyond the basics. If you have a broad understanding of the concepts you will be absolutely fine.

These techniques are not just applicable to portraits.

Two Tips for Making Portraits with a Black Background

Banana palm leaf

Firstly, please think of stops of light as units. Using the term stop is like saying that something weighs 12 kilograms or that it is 10 miles away. As photographers, we tend to talk about stops and stopping down, but it is just as valid to say units. The thing is not to get bogged down in technicalities, the term stop is only a unit of measure.

The falling off of the light

The first concept might be stated simply as light falls off rapidly. Fleshing that out just a little, the amount of light available decreases greatly as you move away from the source of the light. But we are photographers and we do tend to think that a picture is worth a thousand words, so look at the diagram below:

In the example above, one unit of light arrives at our subject, one meter away from the window. If she moves two meters away, just one-quarter of a unit of light will now be arriving at her. Then, if she moves three meters away from the window, which is the source of light, there will be only one-ninth of a unit of light. The available light disappears very quickly.

It might suit some if I illustrate the same point with a graph (which, in the past, I have tended to introduce to students as a Mathematical picture).

Two Tips for Making Portraits with a Black Background

A mathematical picture tells a story?

How does that affect the background?

When trying to achieve a black background, you are interested in the amount of light hitting it. Again, pictures tell the story best. Both these photos had only white balance and very small adjustments to balance exposure done in post-processing.

Two Tips for Making Portraits with a Black Background

Not happy

The image on the left has the background close to the subject, about three feet (one meter) behind her. Then, on the right, the white background is about thirteen feet (four meters) back. You do not need me to do calculations, quote some nice formulae, to prove what is happening above. It is obvious, isn’t it?

In these photographs, the subject hasn’t moved and the exposure does not change. The background moves farther away, and the amount of light reaching it reduces rapidly. Even when the background is white, rather than the desired black, it gets much darker the greater the distance it is positioned from the light source.

In the practical world, there may be limits to what you can do, perhaps by the shooting space you have available. However, the message is simple, push the background as far away as possible, and even a seemingly small distance will help make it appear darker.

Two Tips for Making Portraits with a Black Background

Young Filipino.

The background for this photograph was the inside of a room. The teenage Filipino boy was standing in a doorway, getting full benefit from the light source. The background, the far wall of the room, might be only eight feet (just over two meters) away, but it is getting very close to the blackest of blacks, isn’t it?

Combine this reasonably straightforward science, the way light falls away, with the science of the dynamic range of camera sensors and you will be a long way towards achieving black backgrounds for your portraits.

Dynamic Range

Please understand that the numbers I am using here are approximate. They do vary from camera to camera, and from the conclusion given by one source to another. But I am going for using what is easy, what is really needed to make the point so you understand.

Dynamic range is the measurement from the darkest to the lightest item which can be seen. Your camera has a great deal less dynamic range than the human eye. It is much less capable of seeing into dark and light areas at the same time. That is why, when your camera produces an image with blown out highlights, and blocked up shadows. But your eye can still see the detail of a bird, which sat in bright sunlight, and you can also see the black dog which sat in the darkest shadows. Your camera simply cannot see both at the same time.

Two Tips for Making Portraits with a Black Background

Light the subject, not the background

It might be stating the obvious, but it needs to be said – the first step to getting a black background is to use a black backdrop. Then, if you can get the subject lit more brightly than the background, that will push the background into the underexposed, dark areas, outside the camera’s more limited dynamic range.

Portrait setup

If you can throw some extra light onto the subject and have them exposed correctly, in the brighter end of the dynamic range, that will help to send the rest of the image into darkness. The brightly lit subject should be properly exposed. Then there is a good chance that the background will be outside of the part of the dynamic range for which you are exposing. It will, at the very least, be heading towards black.

Portrait setup

Here is the setup for a portrait, with only natural light hitting the subject. It is not as obvious in this reduced jpeg as in the original RAW file, but the background is rather muddy, certainly getting towards black, but not the pure black you are looking for. In the original, you can clearly see folds in the cloth.

Two Tips for Making Portraits with a Black Background

Still not happy – most people would describe the background as black, but it is not the blackest of blacks, is it?

Here is the same set up again, with some extra light on the subject.

black background

I think the point is illustrated. Is it clear that the background is worthy of the classic description “inky”? Other things could be improved with a few post-processing tweaks. They are presented to show the backgrounds, not as finished portraits, and I’ve only changed color balance and tried to balance the exposures.

Use the natural law (it is called the Inverse Square Law) which dictates that light falls away rapidly from the source, and the limited dynamic range of your camera and you are a long way to getting a good, deep black, background. Next, you can help complete it further in post-processing.

Post-processing

I am referring to Lightroom here, but there are equivalent tools in other software.

Two Tips for Making Portraits with a Black Background

A bit of a muddy RAW file.

This is the photograph from the top of the article, as it first appeared out of the camera. You do not want to hear my excuses, but I did not get it as completely right in-camera as I would normally like to do. However, it turns out that is lucky, as it makes a good example for a post-processing in this case. Because the file was produced with the application of the ideas talked about above, it is very workable.

Most of the way to being processed in just a very few steps.

Edit intuitively

One of the best bits of advice I ever received, which I sometimes manage to apply, is to ignore the numbers. You should move those sliders till they give the look which you think suits the picture. Look at the photo and see what happens, take a breath, pause for a moment, and make some judgment as to whether it gives you what you’re looking for. Often this involves going a bit too far (whether it be with sharpening, or exposure, shadows, or whatever) and then dialing back a little.

I managed to do just that with this image. It makes me smile when I look at it now, a few weeks later, as I am slightly surprised at how far I went. I adjusted the color balance, brushed some negative clarity onto mom’s face, rotated the image counter-clockwise a little, but the exposure was not adjusted at all as the faces looked fine to me. Then I started pushing the sliders around.

Push the limits

It was a bit of a surprise to see just how far towards the negative I had moved the contrast slider. This may be counter-intuitive when you are trying to make parts of the image darker, but because we have got a reasonably well-produced file, we can get away with reducing the contrast, and this has the pleasing effect of lightening the hair and separating it from the background.

Of most significance to this exercise is the shadows slider which was moved in the opposite direction to usual. It was moved to the negative, to block up the shadows, rather than to the right, to try to pull out some detail.

I was also a bit surprised at how far I moved the black point. It seemed to work, though. As I say, I think it often works best if you move the sliders, without too much concern for the numbers they represent. Try to look at each photograph individually, rather than apply some sort of formula.

The final image had only a couple more, tiny, detailed tweaks.

black background

Extra Tips

A couple of other things.

How you decide to throw some light onto the subject of the photograph is for other articles. There are many other great Digital Photography School articles, which offer a huge number of suggestions for illuminating subjects. I thought you should know that I do very much like my LEDs, as I like being able to see the light. I also use reflectors. However, the first source of light in all the photographs above is natural light. You do not necessarily need a fancy kit.

In respect of the black cloth, most advice will suggest that you buy black velvet. I am sure it does an excellent job of absorbing light from all directions. But it is expensive, and with careful technique, it seems to me that another dark, non-shiny cloth can do the job too. One thing to pay a little attention to is making sure that you stretch the background cloth out a little. Try to get it as smooth and even as possible, with no creases, as any imperfections are liable to catch the light.

black background

Conclusion

The power of photography! 25 years after the event, I paid a bit of homage to Annie Leibowitz’s photograph of Demi Moore. I was not trying to replicate it as such, just nod in the photograph’s direction. But I did manage to get a really black background, didn’t I? Please give it a go yourself.

Share your images and questions in the comments below. I’m happy to try to help further if I can.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Richard Messsenger is from Nottingham, England, and is currently based just north of Manila in The Philippines. Photographic opportunities of all hues present themselves daily. However, he like projects with parameters to work towards, targets to aim for. Older, hair too thin, belly too fat, knees wobbling, but he still enjoys using his talents and enthusiasm to make photographs.

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  • Von Will
  • Richard Messenger

    Thank you.

    Love the shot of the boy .. one great face, photographed brilliantly.

  • Thanks for sharing Richard! Great tips and really helpful for a shoot I’ve got this afternoon 🙂

  • Anna Dumke

    I love this article. Which settings are you adjusting on your camera?

  • Richard Messenger

    Well! There is a happy coincidence. Very glad you like the article, thank you.

    You can’t go too far wrong with a black background, can you? Happy shooting!

  • Richard Messenger

    Thank you Anna – that is good to hear.

    I am not exactly sure what you are asking about settings. I usually shoot in Aperture mode. I would usually be looking to see that the faces appear to be well exposed.

    Happily try to tell you anything else you would like to know. Give me a specific image and I will try to give you specifics if I can.

  • Anna Dumke

    I shoot always in aperture mode too and mostly outside. Indoor photos are difficult because of the light. What kind of aperture are you using? ISO?

  • Richard Messenger

    Interesting point for you – almost all the photographs above were taken outside. I could explain at great length, but it is what I think of as an inverted L shape. Take an L and turn it upside down. The easiest real example is an up and over garage door.

    The specific settings? For the photograph which features twice, mother and daughter, just above the title ‘Extra Tips’ was f9, at 1/60, at ISO 800. For a single subject, I would have used a much wider aperture, say f4, but when there are two subjects, you need to have sufficient depth of field.

    If you want to shoot inside, I have a LED light kit which I got from Adorama which I find works very well.

  • Lev Bass

    In the example with the window and the subject 1, 2, 3 meters away from it, I think it’s important to note that the light source is not the sun, which is shown in the illustration. With direct sunlight the change in the distance doesn’t really matter considering how far the sun is.

  • Richard Messenger

    Yes, I know just what you mean, in one of my attempts to make the diagram, the sun was much higher, but it just looked a bit silly. The light source IS the window, which gets its light from the sun. I hoped that was what the arrows indicated, as they come from the window, not the sun. Maybe my diagram would have been better if I had missed out the sun altogether?

    You have made me smile. Yes, there is no difference between being 90 million miles away from the sun, or 90 million miles + 1 metre away.

  • Cameron

    I definitely learnt a lot!

  • Lev Bass

    I would get rid of the sun to make it clear that the light source is _not_ direct sunlight. Otherwise the light fall off will either be non-existent if you move away but stay lit by the sun or it will drop to relatively nothing if you move from sun to shadow. There is a reason the best window for indoor natural light is one facing north. In northern hemisphere 🙂

  • esoteric2000

    Clear and to the point as ever

  • Richard Messenger

    Oh well. I thought the arrows made it clear that the light was coming from the window. I’ll keep it in mind, if I do anything like that again.

    I would be interested to hear more about your north facing window idea. Sounds very plausible, but I would like to know more please.

  • Richard Messenger

    Thank you esoteric.

  • Richard Messenger

    That’s great – pleased to hear it Cameron.

  • Lev Bass

    North facing – away from the sun. Depending on time of day and sky cover it can be other windows. But the idea is to make the window a large source of even light (assuming we are interested in a soft light portrait). So, no sun means the subject can be close to the window (to make it a large light source) and the light will be even (no sun/shadow transitions).

  • Richard Messenger

    I thought that was what you meant – but I tend to think it is best to ask, rather than for me to assume. I like your ideas, but it is the second sentence which is key to me.

  • jocelyn reyes caffrey

    Wonderful photographs and useful information.

  • Richard Messenger

    Thank you Jocelyn – I can’t ask for more than that.

  • Jacqueline Quiring

    I very much enjoyed this article. I appreciate when complicated sounding things are explained in simple terms. Thank you, Richard!

  • Richard Messenger

    Most kind Jacqueline! I’m very glad to be of help. Thank you.

  • Your Tutorials is beautiful and i hopes all the new Photoshop learner are knowing a good knowledge about this.So thanks for share this great Tutorial..

  • Richard Messenger

    That is very kind of you Clippingpath Saffron (intriguing name!).

    I firmly believe that giving Photoshop the best images for this purpose allows it to do its job of ‘focus stacking’ them.

    I am just writing the second part to this, walking through the process in Lightroom and Photoshop. I am sure our editor will squeeze it in as soon as possible. I hope you get chance to see it and give me some feedback.

  • vtsenior

    Well-put and not at all where I thought you’d go with this topic. The graphic explaining dynamic range (showing the difference between what the camera captures vs the human eye) is the best representation of that point I’ve ever seen. It’s so hard to explain to others, but this image clarifies it perfectly. Your shots certainly show your mastery of the subject too.

  • Richard Messenger

    You are very kind vtsenior. Thank you!

    I am particularly pleased that one of my diagrams is a hit!

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  • Mark Jason Daquiz

    very indeed explanation sir! I like those pictures of yours. By the way I’m from the Philippines. Maybe we can see each other then teach me some tricks. beginner here!

  • Richard Messenger

    Nice! Nice to hear from you Mark, nice comments too. Thank you.

    Follow the link from my profile and email me directly please.

  • Thank you for an excellent turorial

    @ArtByPino

  • Russell Rusty Smith

    In editing an image with a black background, you should use the clipping warning on the left side of your histogram and make sure the entire negative (black) space is clipped. This will save you a lot of printing frustrations.You will get a solid black background when printing.

  • Richard Messenger

    I agree that the using the black slider, clipping the black, whilst paying attention to the clipping warning is a very good way to go. I just checked, and I did comment in the article on just how far I moved the black slider. With all these things, you need to look at the whole picture.

    However, the point of the article was mainly about trying to get it as right as you can in the camera. If you have an understanding of the fall off of light, and the restricted dynamic range of your camera, there should not be so much need for dependence on processing.

  • Richard Messenger

    Most kind Deval ‘Pino’ Shah – I am very happy if you have learnt something, or simply had your understanding confirmed.

  • Suesheila

    Excellent tutorial! I’ve been shooting a lot of still life, and have struggled getting a dark and/or black background without using a black backdrop. This article clarified the techniques needed. Thank you so much for this!

  • Richard Messenger

    That is excellent Suesheila. I am very happy if I have helped at all. Thank you!

    Move the background away from the source of light. Try to have the object in the upper end of the dynamic range of the camera. That’s it! Took a lot of words to say just those two things, didn’t it?

    Thank you for starting my weekend with a smile!

  • Jack Doy

    Thanks for that Richard, that’s helped me a lot, I’m not a young man so cant take in all the formula as I did in the past, you made that very simple for me. I have often got results purely by accident that way they stick in my mind. I found locking the ISO down helped darken the back ground.

  • Richard Messenger

    Hi Jack, good to hear from you. Thank you for your positive response.

    I’m curious about your ISO comment though. What mode do you shoot in? Or do you, as I think might be the case, shoot manual?

    Your comment about achieving the results by accident really made me smile with recognition. I’ve done that so many times. I think accidents, or shall we say ‘fortunate surprises’?, have featured along the way in achieving black backgrounds.

  • Jack Doy

    Yes manual most of the time, aperture other wise, in situations I’m not quite sure of some times auto, just as a guide, then tweak the settings to what I feel happy with. I had a teacher who always reckoned if you learned by your mistakes you were a wiser person.

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