In the video above, professional photographer, Karl Taylor discusses several useful tips for working with black backgrounds when shooting portraits, products, and other types of photography.
What materials to choose for the background?
You might be surprised but Taylor’s first choice for black background material is not black paper roll that many photographers use. It is actually black velvet which has better light absorption properties. He also uses some MDF boards on wheels which he paint black but you will need to work at longer distances and use matt paint to get good black.
There are even better paints that can make a background super black – maybe one of the most famous is called Vantablack (or Vertically Aligned Nano Tube Array Black) made by the British company Surrey NanoSystems. This amazing pigment absorbs 99,965% of the incident light. The problem is that it is not available for the general public, it is extremely expensive and has health concerns.
The amazing properties of Vantablack
So while Vantablack is not an option for photographers, there are some ultra-black substances that are – like Black 3.0 (with 97.5%) and Musou Black (with 99.4%) which also comes as a fabric and we will be working with them for some product shoots and maybe even making a video later this year.
The positioning of your subject and lights
There is a lot to consider when it comes to the positioning of your subject and lights. A light spills from your subject can spill onto your background so you need to try and light and position the subject in such a way that this will be minimized (side lighting/backlighting/focused lighting etc.).
Having more room between the subject and the background is another sure way of creating darker backgrounds but this is not always possible.
Using the inverse square law
understanding the inverse square law is important for a lot of aspects of photography – the closer the light is to your subject the quicker the falloff you will see in the background. This is especially important when shooting in small spaces.
Using rim lights is a good way of getting the lights to not hit your background (coming from behind with some angle facing the subject/camera at an angle). For many types of photography with black (but not only black) backgrounds, adding a background glow behind the subject – you can use other colors with gels as well.
You should also make sure that your subject is lit well enough – a black background doesn’t mean that your entire image should be dark just the background, so use focused lights, reflectors etc. to point the light at your subject but avoid light contamination of the background.
For portraits, using smaller modifiers, grids etc., and creating a moody look can be a good idea. Umbrellas tend to spill a lot to the background so try and avoid them for black background shots.
There is a lot that you can do in post (although as always, trying to make as much in-camera is best). Making sure that the background is indeed black (pure black = 0) or adding black to some areas and create Photoshop for graduated lighting in the background (this is not always possible especially with smaller products) and much more.
You can check out more of Karl Taylor’s video we posted in the past here on LensVid.