Making the Background Black

Last week I’ve posted about how to make the background white, this week we’ll go the other way and make the background black, the doll in the picture to the right was shoot in exactly the same location as the white background shoot from last week, the wall behind the doll is off-white in reality.

As with white background the trick is that the camera is limited in the range of brightness it can capture, go above that range and you get pure white, go below and you get pure black. Also, again like width the white background, the distance between the subject and background is critical – the longer that distance is the easier it is to get the background to turn black.

The trick is very simple. you set your flash to low power and get it as close as possible to the subject – and than because the distance from flash to background is relatively much more than the distance from flash to subject the background gets very little light compared to the subject and since we used a weak flash to begin with that light is not enough for the background to even appear in the picture.

Now, since my “studio” is a tiny room I couldn’t  get the required distance to get the background to turn black in-camera – so I’ll show you how the get an almost black background in-camera and then finish the effect with less than a minute of post processing.

I shot this in exactly the same place as last week’s white background pictures, our model for today is an hello kitty doll (because it is brightly colored and will look good against the black background), I’ve also covered the glass we used in the white background picture with something black (the back of the same picture frame I took the glass from).

First set you camera to manual (M) mode, your shutter speed to your camera’s sync speed, your ISO to the lowest value and your aperture to something small, F/11 is a good starting point – you want a setting that will produce completely black image if used without a flash.

Now for the flash, you want to flash as close to the subject as possible without it showing in the picture, you also want to control the light, in this case I’ve used a DIY softbox (take a cardboard box, cut and glue to make a funnel shape where the small side is the size of your flash head, cover inside with aluminum foil, cover large opening with something white that is not completely opaque, I used a diaper) and I’ve also placed some black packing material on the far side of the softbox to block the light from hitting the background (something that blocks the light from going where it shouldn’t is usually called a flag).

Here’s how it looked from above:

You can clearly see the cardboard softbox, the flash is below the cardboard flap at the back of the softbox, you can also see the flag and on the other side you can see a folder silver car windshield cover (I’m not sure what those things are called), in this picture it is used as a reflector, bouncing light back to our “model” so that the right side of the doll won’t be in complete darkness.

Now I’ve played with the aperture and flash power to get a good exposure of the doll without getting any light on the far wall – and, as I said before I couldn’t do it – so I’ve taken a picture where the background is almost black and the doll is a little too dark (but don’t worry, we will solve this problem in a minute) the somewhat disappointing photo is (click to see larger version):

You can’t really see it but the background in this picture is actually not completely black, if we increase the brightness of the picture the background will appear – but this can easily be solved by the levels or curves tool of your favorite graphics package, because we are doing a low budget photo shoot I’m going to show you how to fix the problem in two ways using two free software programs:

In I’ve used the levels tool, I’ve pulled the lower handle on the input slider just a bit to make the background really turn black and than pulled the middle handle on the output slider a lot to brighten the doll.

In GIMP I couldn’t get the result I wanted using the levels tool so I’ve used curves instead, I’ve kept the far left of the curve at zero to turn the background black and raised the rest of the curve to brighten the doll, I had to fine tone the curve a bit so I don’t lose details in the white parts.

Here are the results from the two programs with the settings I’ve used:


You can see there are some visible reflections in the black paper thing the doll is sitting on (it’s most visible in the middle version), but those are easy to edit out – just paint over them with black.

And the final result is (click for larger version):

And that’s how to get the background to turn black for product photographs, hope you enjoyed this tutorial.

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