Darkening With Light

Darkening With Light

darkening-with-light-3.jpgHave 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 is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Lucian March 22, 2009 01:57 am

    (sorry, a disclaimer: do check the compatibility with your camera; I'm on Canon 40D)

  • Lucian March 22, 2009 01:53 am

    Great article, thx !

    I discovered the technique accidentally, and love it now. A sample here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mlucian/3354029626/ , with the flash mounted on the camera.

    For the wireless solution for Canon users (as some people asked), I recommend the '4 Channels Kit Flash Radio Remote Trigger PT-04 PT04 TM' (10$ on ebay ); it doesn't work as ETTL, but for that price I don't care - I just trigger it ... unless if you have a studio, where you may have very dynamic shooting, you can put the slave flash on manual, and in 2 test-shots you've set it up to the right power.


  • walter March 6, 2009 03:05 am

    Hallo, I am an amateur photographer, new to strobe photography. I own a D300, an SB900 and an SB800 flashguns. I try to use the SB900 as a master off-camer (driven by a Pocket Wizard unit connect via PC cable), I set the SB800 as a remote flash, the two units communicates but the slave (SB 800) flashes significantly late (a couple of secs.) - this doesn't happen if I place the master (SB900) on the hot-show of my D300. I tried also to swap the two flashguns, but no success.
    This also happens if I use a an SC-29 (TTL cord) to fire the master.
    I have no clue on how to solve it.

    Thanks in advance

  • Chas February 24, 2009 10:10 pm

    I found this article for those of you using Sony equipment. It has some helpful setup info.


  • Ken February 24, 2009 02:08 pm

    I've had success with this outdoors at night. I just had to find an area with nothing within the flash's range besides my subject. It worked!

  • Chas February 24, 2009 07:14 am

    It sounds like you have your aperture set to small for the flash to take effect. If you are in manual mode leave the shutter speed to 1/160 and start opening your aperture until you get a good exposure. Email me from there and let me know how it goes.

  • Robb February 24, 2009 06:40 am

    Thanks. I made a mistake in what I typed: I set my pop-up flash compensation to -2 (all the way down). The off camera flash to 1/1. In wireless mode, the picture was so underexposed it looked like no flash at all. I tried all flash modes. Unless I bump up the on camera compensation, I can't get lower than 1/160. My white balance is set to Flash. I feel like I'm not doing something because I even tried to use the off camera this weekend, in a room with decent natural like and that attempt also rendered underexposure. I guess I'm not understanding how the light works here and what's going wrong.

  • Chas February 24, 2009 06:09 am

    Robb: The reason I had to stop down my aperture all the way to f22 was because I had set my flash power to 1/1 (Full Power). If you don't want to blind your subjects you can open the aperture while at the same time lowering the power of the flash. Essentially, the more open your aperture is, the more powerful the flash becomes. Make sense? So 1: Don't set your pop-up to 1/1, that's full power and you want it as low as it will go. 2: Increase your off camera flash power to the desired setting and adjust your aperture to get a good exposure from there. ( I had set my off camera flash to full power so it would easily over power ambient light in the room, but it's not really the best method for a real shoot.) Hope that makes sense.

  • Robb February 24, 2009 05:21 am

    I'm struggling with this technique. I'm shooting with a Sony a300, trying to use my Promaster 7500 flash as my off camera flash. In Manual, I could stop down to F22, but couldn't get past 1/160. Even then, in wireless mode, I got pure darkness. Turned down my pop-up and flash to 1/1. The only way I got anything was to set my flash mode on anything but wireless, and then the shots looked like the pop-up was brighter than the flash only a few inches away from the subject. As I'm typing this, I read/realized that I didn't zoom my flash, but still, having it so close should have made some difference. Any suggestions?

  • Toby February 22, 2009 08:27 pm

    Don't despair Indra!

    Just because you can't do it wirelessly doesn't mean you can't use off-camera flash!

    You can get hotshoe adaptors which will work with many flashes and you can do it wired (which is what I'm doing at the moment. (hotshoe-to-hotshoe - like an extension lead for your flash)

    You can also get a hotshoe-PC adaptor - the hotshoe goes on to your camerea, you plug in the PC cord, then at the other end you plug the PC cord into your flash. If you flash doesn't have a PC cord slot (like mine doesn't...boo) you can just get another adaptor to put the flash in.

    COst wise, I think the adaptors are usually around £6.00 GBP and the sync cords not much more. I think my nissin hotshoe adaptor was about £20 GBP. I'm still learning, but I've got some nice shots with it.

  • Vv February 22, 2009 01:41 pm

    I am using Canon 450D, I don't know how to do it... T.T Help~~

  • Michael February 22, 2009 10:45 am

    This came after I'd already tried this, only I threw a large piece of black cotton material over a door for mine. I don't have any lights or anything, just the popup flash on the 450D

    You can see the results here: http://www.pbase.com/tarocchi/image/109346795


  • Indra February 22, 2009 02:26 am

    aww crap.. Nikon's built in flash can be used to trigger the slaves? I own a Canon 1000d and I can't do that. I was getting excited for awhile, but thanks anyway :)

  • Dianne February 21, 2009 02:07 pm

    Great article. I'm glad for the re-run error. I was thinking about this article and was planning on looking it up. Thanks!

  • Chas February 21, 2009 11:00 am

    Ya, it was re-run by mistake actually. Another article on wireless lighting is in the pipe.

    Antonio, the power settings are done in fraction form. So 1/1 is full power, 1/2 is half power etc. You can chose any desired setting appropriate. If you're still having trouble, email me.

  • Deirdre February 21, 2009 08:47 am

    Wasn't this run a few months ago? I don't mind things being re-run, but some note of that at the beginning would be great. I got half-way through it thinking -- this sounds familiar -- before I realized it was familiar because I'd read it already. Not a great use of my time.

  • Antonino February 21, 2009 05:09 am

    Can someone please help me figure out how I use normal power (1/1) and dial it down. I'm not understanding how that's done on the flash. I don't see that option once I'm in remote mode. I'm sure it's me not reading the manual correctly or understanding it for that matter. If you can reference me to the page in the SB 600 manual that explains this that would be great. Or step me thru it button by button in this post.

    Thanks for this GREAT tutorial!!!

  • Mandi February 20, 2009 03:45 pm

    I have done this myself with my Canon 5D Mark II and a Viator off camera flash and a strobe light. I shot a project for school in my home at 2pm in the afternoon in a room full of window. I had to mimic the "Film Noir" era. The shadows can be quite dramatic. My background wasn't black. Didn't want it be. I have them posted on my blog mandinikolephotography.bigfolioblog.com. I have always loved the use of natural light and have done most of my photography outside. This year I have been experimenting with off camera flash systems and am beginning to like light manipulation more and more.

  • Jhay February 20, 2009 03:44 pm

    Wow! Didn't knew that the built-in flash for Nikon's could be used to command their speedlights.

    Thanks for this awesome tip!

  • MeiTeng February 20, 2009 03:38 pm

    The results are great! Thanks for sharing.

  • tyler February 20, 2009 01:40 pm

    Some canon flashes can fire other flashes. I am pretty sure that my 580 ex can make my 420 ex fire, but I have the st2 wireless trigger as well, so I go that route. Nice article, I never thought to try this.

  • Colin Patterson February 20, 2009 01:23 pm

    I recently did a shoot with a photographer (my friend) who uses a Nikon. I use a Canon. He was using SB-800's as slaves, setting them off from his camera. Then, he told me to turn off my flash-assist and fire away, using the slaves. It worked! I was setting off the Nikon flashes with my 40D! So, all you Canon users out there, get a Nikon flash and try it...

  • Matthew February 20, 2009 01:07 pm

    i vaguely remember reading this article before. however, it is good and i'll be sure to try those techniques next chance i get

  • Rita February 20, 2009 09:54 am

    This rocks. Thanks for sharing it! I have the D90 and SB-800, but didn't know I could the remote deal.

  • Fera February 20, 2009 09:11 am

    I like it and might try it . Thanks !

  • Mario February 20, 2009 08:48 am

    I made a shoot last Christmas with your nice post with success. Since I use a Olympus E-500 that has no commander mode or something similar to that, I crancked down the pop-up flash to 1/16 of the normal power, installed my external flash onto an optical slave similar to this one: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/109466-REG/Kaiser_201501_Hot_Shoe_Flash_Slave.html, but bought on E-Bay (much cheaper... ). Put it on a tripod and Voilà! Many wows in the familly!

  • tom dinning February 20, 2009 08:44 am

    Nice one. I've been using the Nikon Commander mode for some time now and its great. I have even combined it with my studio lights, using the flash from the SB600 and 800 to trigger the slave units on the studio flashes. I give me a huge amount of control in the studio. The one thing that annoyed me at first was using the in-built flash to trigger the remotes, especially at close range. It also doesn't allow a meter reading to be taken if operating on manual exposure because of the pre-flashes.
    I overcame this with a filter that I borrowed from a remote flash trigger for the studio flashes which filters out everything but the infra red end of the spectrum. I stick tape the filter over the inbuilt flash on the camera and presto! Perfect metering, perfect exposure. I haven't timed myself on this one when the grandkids come to visit but it needs to be fast. They have a very short attention span.

  • anonymous February 20, 2009 08:24 am

    brilliant idea i like it

  • Logan February 20, 2009 07:06 am

    This is good stuff, I used this exact technique (right down to the crumpled dark blue blanket hanging over the door) to shoot black and white headshots for a clients website.
    I think they were a bit horrified when I turned up and set about doing this but they were very happy with the results, enough so that they have offered me more work. Tricks like this are great for impressing people with your versatility.
    A good tip is to distance the subject from the background so the flash doesn't light your old crumpled blue blanket! :o)

    To answer the question re canon system. You will need a seperate wireless trigger. Ideally the st-e2 which will communicate all the ettl information to your speedlite although there are much cheaper ones out there that will allow you to trigger the flash in manual mode.

    I was going to post the shots here but I can't figure out how to do it. I can't seem to copy and paste into this box so there must be a trick to it.
    Maybe someone can let me know how to do that?

  • Jim Poor February 20, 2009 06:55 am

    @ Joe:

    f22 is considerable darker than f8-11 referenced in the article you linked. I think you may be mixing up larger number = more light when exactly the opposite is the case.

  • joe February 20, 2009 06:11 am

    If you're trying to kill ambient light, then why'd you close down your aperture so much?

  • Mike February 20, 2009 04:55 am

    And for those of us on the dark side, it appears that Canon built in flashes do not support being a Master. You need to get a transmitter to pull this off. And I was so excited for awhile. Apart from that, the technique looks good. I'm going to try it.

  • megan February 20, 2009 03:56 am

    hi, any canon users out there that could address christopher's question? i'm on a canon system and would love to know how to do this. i tried doing some remote triggers of my flash but couldn't get it to work. thanks in advance.

  • Daniel February 20, 2009 03:14 am

    The ratio of the distances of the subject to background and subject to flash will also help darken the background since light drops off according to the inverse square law. A larger ratio means that less light will hit the background.

  • Toby February 20, 2009 03:12 am

    I'm aiming to go wireless on payday (only a week away!)


  • Chas February 20, 2009 02:47 am

    Toby: Good points. Reflectors and diffusers are great if you have the time. This is more of a quick and dirty way of getting decent shots in a pinch. In addition to your recommendation on setting the flash zoom, they also make cheap barn-door attachments for the flash as well.

    Fletch: :D You're correct. I discovered "walla" is that murmuring sound effect you here on the radio. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walla


  • Fletch February 20, 2009 02:37 am


    Hilarious. I assume you mean voilà. Just need to get a wireless flash now.

  • Toby February 20, 2009 02:19 am

    If you want softer shadows on the face, try covering the flash head with a little white paper (toilet roll, tracing paper, even standard printer paper) - you might have to dial up the flash power, but the paper will diffuse the light giving a softer shadow. you can also buy diffusers for a few pounds/dollars in most camera shops

    Check the zoom setting on your flash - if it's set to a wide angle, you'll find you get some flash spillage on the back - of course you can change the position of the flash to account for this, but changing its zoom setting (if it has one) will focus the light more on the subject

    Add a reflector - those pics are lovely, but for children especially I'd like to see less harsh shadows - that is aided partly by the first point I make above, but also by using a reflector - in the second set of the boy, the shadows to camera right are very harsh. Having a white sheet to camera right (or large piece of paper, poster etc) would reflect light back just giving a little more light on his left side, 'popping' him from the picture.

  • Chas February 20, 2009 02:15 am

    Ruth: Yes, the blanket I used was long enough to come down on to the floor a few feet. She is sitting on it.

  • AnneWynne February 20, 2009 02:01 am


    I have a D50 as well. I use a flash slave to trigger a remote flash. The remote flash sits on the flash slave and thehe flash slave is light triggered by the pop-up flash firing and triggers the remote flash.
    I don't know if I can dial down the pop-up so it does not light the front of the subject but still trigger the remote...I will have to try that.


  • Danny February 20, 2009 01:44 am


    You are correct regarding the D50 - it has no wireless commander mode. Rather than spend all that money on a Nikon controller, buy some cheap ebay wireless remotes - I'm a set of those with my D50 and SB-600 with perfect results.

    Have a look here for an example of what I've done with that setup.

  • Ruth Ann February 20, 2009 01:42 am

    I have a question. In the picture of the baby, is she sitting on the dark blanket as well as it being behind her? Or is she just sitting on the floor?

  • Christopher Mayers February 20, 2009 01:35 am

    Nice tips on capturing light. It's like turning portraiture into a product shot.

    Is there any way to achieve wireless control for a Canon flash system using just the camera itself? I've seen those Speedlite transmitters, but they're mad expensive, considering they don't actually do a whole lot besides trigger a flash wirelessly.

    Also, I believe you mean "Voila!" and not "Wala!", though phonetically-spelled French would be nice.

  • Iggy February 20, 2009 01:30 am


    Correct, the D50 does not have any commander mode. I am not 100% positive, but I'm pretty sure the SB 600 does not do the SU-4 mode that the SB 800 and SB 900 models do. SU-4 allows for triggering those two flash models optically - as in they respond to the light given off by any other flash. I own both a D50 and a SB900 (and have used a SB 800) so that's all I can really speak for, unfortunately.

  • Greg February 20, 2009 01:12 am

    Interesting. I discovered the same technique while photographing an orchid show. I was able to black out the random background (people, posters, etc) and just highlight the orchid.

  • Chas February 20, 2009 12:57 am

    Correction: 1/1 is not "normal" power but is "full" power as noted last time this was posted. Try dialing it down a bit and compensating with other camera settings and see what you get. 1/1 is a lot of light. Good luck.


  • Jim Poor February 20, 2009 12:56 am

    For those Nikon users without a commander mode or a pop-up flash, the SU-800 flash commander is a good tool to have. You can get it stand-alone or with the R1C1 kit. I actually learned how to use that before I learned how to use the commander mode on the SB-800 / 900.

    With the SB-800 / 900, remote mode and SU-4 mode are two different animals (I've never had a 600, so I don't know if that is the case for them). SU-4 is triggered by visible light flash while remote mode is triggered by IR, so there is no worry about spill from the commander.

    Also for Nikon users, you can achieve the same effect by dialing in minus compensation on the body and plus compensation on the flash. -1 / +1 is a good starting point, but depending on ambient conditions, you can tweak the settings a bit.

  • dcclark February 20, 2009 12:49 am

    cheezman -- I'm not sure about the D50, but the D40 doesn't have a commander mode. That would seem to indicate that the D50 is the same...

  • Danferno February 20, 2009 12:27 am

    Isn't this a repost? See https://digital-photography-school.com/darkening-backgrounds-with-light-in-portraits

  • cheezman February 20, 2009 12:23 am

    Oh, and excellent piece, btw. If I can solve my commander problem with the D 50 and SB 600 I'll attempt the abyss background shots with my own kids.

  • cheezman February 20, 2009 12:22 am

    Am I correct in concluding that the D50 does NOT have a commander mode that allows use of the built in as master to a remote SB 600? I've concluded that this is the case, but have never seen or heard it said that "no, with the D50 you do NOT have commander mode." So does this then mean that I must purchase an SB 800 that can act as a master? Thanks for any help.