Here’s How to Shoot Portraits With a Black Background
Learning how to shoot portraits with a black background is one of the key skills you need to know as a studio portrait photographer. Traditionally, many of your shoots may use white backgrounds or even colored backdrops. But knowing how to create a black background in any location is a useful skill to add to your repertoire. It can add drama to a portrait, as well as highlight the subject in a complementary fashion. But if you think black background portraits are too complex or artsy, think again.
In fact, you may be surprised by how easy it is to shoot a portrait with a black background. You can even do it outdoors on a sunny day! Once you know how it works, you’ll be able to add more variety to your portraits, as well as still life and product photography. Mostly, creating a black background is all about knowing how to manipulate light. We’ll discuss all the ins and outs of how to shoot portraits with a black background ahead.
Know your dynamic range
First, it’s important to understand how cameras differ from the human eye. Typically, cameras have a lower dynamic range than we do. That means there are things at either end of the range that we can see that cameras can’t. We’re much better at seeing things that are either very dark or very bright, But these exact images will appear either washed out or pitch-black on camera.
And, you can use this difference to your advantage when shooting portraits. If you make sure that the background is much darker than the subject, then you can make nearly anything look black.
For example, think of a person standing in a doorway. If you’re indoors and looking past them, you might be able to see both the person and the world outside. But on camera, if the person is well-lit, then the sky behind them might be washed out. It’s almost as if you’ve hung a white backdrop behind them!
The same thing works in reverse. If you’re outside looking in, you might be able to see a little ways behind them in the hall. But on camera, the hallway will appear dark — maybe even pitch-black. With a little cropping and editing, no one will know you didn’t shoot it in a studio.
The Inverse Square Law
The important thing is to light for the camera, not for the eye. That can take a little getting used to. One thing that may be helpful is understanding the Inverse Square Law. Without getting too technical, the law states the amount of light that reaches a subject is “inversely proportional to the square of the distance” from the light source.
This means that light drops off more rapidly than you might think as you move away from your studio lights. If your subject is two feet away from your light source, and your backdrop is two feet beyond that, how much light will reach the backdrop in relation to the subject?
You might think half because the distance is double. But the Inverse Square Law demonstrates that only a quarter as much light will reach the backdrop. If you move your backdrop eight feet from the light source, then only 1/16th as much light will reach it compared to your subject.
Do you see where this is going? The further your backdrop is from your subject. The less light reaches it and the darker the backdrop will appear. To make a backdrop look jet-black, you simply need to ensure it isn’t as well-lit as your subject.
Setting up the image
To get the most convincing image, you’ll want to use as dark a backdrop as possible. Ideally, a black studio curtain or piece of fabric will do the trick. Make sure to choose one that isn’t shiny, so it doesn’t reflect light back to the camera, then stretch out the material so it doesn’t have wrinkles.
If you haven’t studied photography, your instinct might be to put the backdrop right behind the subject, because that’s what looks best to the naked eye. You might feel the temptation to light the backdrop, so it looks as black as possible.
But remember, what you see in real life isn’t what it looks like on camera. Try setting up your backdrop eight or even 10 feet from your subject. To get an approximation of what it will look like on camera, try squinting to reduce some of the light that reaches your eye. Even if the cloth itself isn’t pure black, the backdrop will appear deep dark.
If your background is still visible, you can move the subject closer to the light source or increase the light output. If you’re shooting outdoors or don’t have a backdrop, look for the darkest texture you can shoot against, such as an open doorway or a dark wall.
Post-production and other tips
No matter how well you set up your backdrop, it’s possible that some glare or wrinkles may be visible in the final image. If you shoot outside or against a makeshift backdrop, you may still be able to see the texture of a wall or structure in the background.
If that’s the case, use the shadow and contrast tools in your photo editing app to get a more consistent color. Even perfectly lit photos can use a little tweaking, and everything from your subject’s clothing to their skin tone can impact how they show up in the image.
If you’re a traveling photographer, you can invest in a collapsible backdrop, or you can learn Glyn Dewis’s “Invisible Black Backdrop” technique. His trick is to set his camera to the lowest possible ISO and the highest shutter speed so that no ambient light reaches the lens.
Once he finds the right f-stop to achieve a completely dark image, he takes a photo with his DLSR using a synchronized off-camera flash. Since the camera only picks up the light from the flash, his subject is illuminated and the background is not.
This allows him to take stunning black-and-white photos that look like he shot them in a studio, but that he actually shot outdoors in a field or parking lot.
Practice at a Peerspace
If you need to shoot portraits with a black background and don’t know where to start, consider booking a studio on Peerspace. We have professional portrait studios in cities across North America and beyond that you can rent by the hour. You can even book a less conventional space to practice taking black background photos, like a private theater, a castle, a loft, you name it. It’s a unique way to challenge yourself while honing your skills.
Many of our locations come with the option of booking camera equipment as well, so you can have all of the backdrops you need on hand for your shoot. And if you book a space that doesn’t have all of the equipment you need, simply contact the Concierge service. These event pros can source equipment from trusted local retailers and drop it off to you at your rental.