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Darkening Backgrounds With Light in Portraits

Today Charles Clawson from blog.chaselliot.com shares some portrait tips on getting dark backgrounds… with light.


Have you ever wondered how photographs get that background darkness that makes the person appear to be standing in front of some great abyss? Well, that effect isn’t as difficult as you might think and the trick seems counter intuitive. The key is to darken your picture with more light. Let me explain with an example.

On Sunday, my nieces and nephews came over for our typical family dinner. Since they were already dressed up in their Sunday best they asked if I could take a few shots before we sat down to eat. If you knew these kids you’d know why shooting after eating wasn’t an option. So I had 5 min to figure out how to take decent pictures in a boring living room with bad lighting. As you progress in photography be prepared for these situations. Fortunately I had an idea.

First, I took a dark blanket off the couch and had someone hang it over the door. If you have ever tried shooting in front of a blanket you’d know that the results are often less than pleasing most of the time. Textures and wrinkles can be distracting. I didn’t want light coming from where I was standing so I removed the flash from my camera and handed it to a bystander and told them to aim it like a gun close to the subject.


Ok, now some mildly technical stuff.

Both Nikon and Canon have a wireless flash system that’s semi-standard on their cameras and flash units. I was shooting Nikon so their terminology is slightly different than others. First, I set my flash unit (SB-600) to “remote” mode and noted the channel (1) and group (A) displayed on the back of the flash. Because remote flash units need to be triggered by another flash, I decided to just use the popup flash that was already on my camera. I went into my camera menu and changed my flash to Commander Mode. In that same menu, I set the camera flash to control any remote strobe set to Channel 1, and any flash in Group A to fire at normal power. I was only using one remote flash for this shot but the camera can control many units with this same system. The last thing I did was to dial down my pop-up flash as low as it would go. I wanted to use it to communicate with the other strobes, but I didn’t want any of its light to actually make it into the picture. Whew… done.

As difficult as that sounded, it took roughly 30 seconds to do. So now I had a remote flash that could be placed anywhere in the room that was being controlled by the popup flash on my camera. No more boring, always lit from the front shots. Ok, final technical point to this shot, and that is how to achieve the dramatic shadows with a pure black background. As you know, for a subject to be properly exposed you manipulate the shutter speed and aperture size until you are letting in just the right amount of light for a proper picture. Well what would happen if you had a subject that was so bright that in order to keep them properly exposed you had to close the shutter before the surroundings had time to burn their way into the photo. (Re-read that last sentence if necessary.) Wala! By making a subject intensely bright, or much brighter than the surroundings, it will properly expose long before the background, in my case a dark blue blanket, shows up. I put my camera in manual mode and stopped down my aperture to as small as it would allow (f/22) and set my shutter speed as fast as it would go while in commander mode (1/250). Again, seems counter intuitive, but by having a bright flash so close to the subject, you end up darkening the rest of the photo. The entire photo-shoot took less than 10 min from setup to finish.


Lets recap.

Step 1: Get the flash off your camera to achieve those dramatic lighting and shadow effects.

Step 2: Set the flash to be remotely controlled.

Step 3: Set your camera pop-up flash to “Commander Mode”.

Step 4: Dial in your flash settings with your camera menu. I used normal power (1/1).

Step 5: Dial down your pop-up flash so you don’t get light coming from the pop-up in your photo.

Step 6: Put your camera in Manual mode with the smallest aperture and fastest shutter speed available to avoid over exposing your shots. Adjust from there.

Give it a try and post your results.

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Chas Elliott
Chas Elliott

is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

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