Black backgrounds can look very effective in photography, and they’re a popular choice for everything from portrait photography to products.
Although a plain black background may look easy to achieve, there are actually quite a few things to consider if you want to get the best results, so I’ve put together a guide to help you, including tips for what background to use, what lighting is best, and where to position your subject.
How to create a black background
When it comes to creating black backgrounds in the studio, it’s not quite as simple as finding a black background and positioning it behind the subject. To get the best results, you need to consider the material of the background, the position of the subject in relation to the background, and the lighting.
The best background for photography
When it comes to the best material for black backgrounds, velvet is by far the best choice. While most black fabrics will work just fine, velvet is the best for absorbing the light, which means you can position your subject quite close to the background without worrying that your lights will have an effect.
Another common photography background that I often use, especially for product photography, is MDF boards, which I paint black or dark grey (you can make a grey background black simply by working slightly further away from the backdrop, as I’ll explain later). With these, you’ll have to work with your subject some distance from the background to avoid your lighting having an impact, and you’ll need to make sure to choose a matte paint to avoid unnecessary reflections or highlights.
Paper rolls and pop up backgrounds are also an option, though these can cause some difficulty with light reflectance if you’re working in a small space. I also find that these materials require more retouching than the other options.
Positioning your subject
Once you’ve selected your background material, the next thing you need to consider is the position of the subject in relation to the background.
When shooting on black, you will need to think about whether you want to include light behind the subject, and whether you have enough room to do so.
If you’re using materials like paper rolls, or even foamboard, having the subject close to the background increases the likelihood of light spilling onto and affecting the background, so make sure there is enough room that the light doesn’t impact the background.
If you’re not shooting on a black background and are instead working with a dark grey background, you can control the darkness or lightness of the background depending on how close or far you position the subject away from it. To understand how this works, it’s necessary to have an understanding of the inverse square law.
Understanding the inverse square law
The inverse square law is a concept that will help you in any area of photography, not just when it comes to creating black backgrounds. I explain the inverse square law in much more detail in my ‘Introduction and understanding light’ course, but, very simply, this refers to the intensity of light falloff in an image. The closer the light is to something (for example the subject), the quicker the falloff of light will be on other areas such as the background.
By understanding this principle, we can better understand how to control light and get the result we want.
I demonstrate this in the video below, as well as in our many of our photography classes, including our creative portrait lighting techniques live show and floral fine art live show, and show you how the inverse square law not only has an impact on the light on your subject but also on the background.
What you’ll see in each of these videos is that when the light is further away from the subject, because the falloff of light is much less the background is lighter. But when the light is closer, the falloff of light is much quicker. This means that even if we’re shooting on a white background, by positioning the light closer to our subject we can use the inverse square law to create a dark grey background if we’re not using any additional light on the background.
Lighting setups for black backgrounds
While dark backgrounds can look nice for some subjects, they can very often look quite basic, especially if the subject is poorly lit or doesn’t stand out clearly.
In these cases, there are a few techniques you can use to add an extra level of professionalism to your work and help create separation between the subject and background.
1. Rim lighting
Rim lighting, or edge lighting, is one of the easiest lighting techniques to ensure the subject stands out against a dark background. Useful for everything from portrait photography to product photography, rim lighting involves placing one or two lights behind and to the side of the subject, with the light facing back towards the subject and camera. The light then glances and bounces off of the subject (this is due to angles of reflectance) to create a rim light.
This technique creates a subtle rim of light that can be particularly useful in helping subjects of similar colour, for example, a subject wearing a black jumper or a dark wine bottle, stand out. The strength of the rim lighting can easily be controlled by changing the position or power of the lights.
2. Background light
Another technique that I commonly use in my work is to include a background glow behind the subject. This not only creates a clear separation between the subject and the background, but it also adds a sense of elegance and luxury, particularly in product photography.
3. Lighting the subject
This point may seem obvious, but I’ve seen many examples of black on black photography where the subject just isn’t lit well enough to stand out. When the subject is underexposed, it goes without saying there won’t be enough separation when shot against a plain black background.
To overcome this, it might be a case of adding additional lights or reflectors, or it could be simply increasing the power of the lights.
Black background portraits
You’ll find a number of examples of portraits on black backgrounds on both my portfolio and in our portrait photography course, but key to any successful black background portrait are the points I’ve discussed above.
I’ll often use a dark grey wall as my background — I have a mobile wall in the studio, or I simply paint the studio walls dark grey — as this allows me the most control over how dark or light I want the background.
The next step is to think about what mood I want in the image. I demonstrate how to achieve different feelings in an image simply by changing the lighting on the subject in my ‘How to use photography lighting to convey emotion’ live show.
For more moody, dramatic images, I’ll use a lighting setup that creates deep, dark shadows. This might include using smaller modifiers, such as reflectors with grids or snoots, small softboxes, or even a beauty dish.
If, on the other hand, I want a lighter, softer look to the image, then larger modifiers are preferable. I tend not to use umbrellas because although they produce soft light and are a popular choice for portrait photography lighting, they do result in a lot of light spilling around the studio and onto the background.
Black background product images
Black can be a good choice for product photography as it invokes a sense of class and elegance, but it can be difficult to achieve, especially as product photography lighting is often much more precise than portraiture.
The way I shoot, I work with one light at a time to make sure I know exactly what each individual light is doing. Often I’ll start with the background light (if I’m including one) before moving to the lighting on the product.
The key to product photography is making sure the product is well-lit and clearly visible, especially when shooting black on black, so I’d recommend using either rim lighting or a light on the background to help the product stand out.
Retouching black background photos
While I always try to get my images as close to perfect as I can in-camera, there are times where I may use Photoshop to refine or add some final finishing touches to get the perfect black background.
This might simply involve darkening the blacks in an image (pure black should read 0 in the RGB colour channels), or it could involve adding black to areas of the image where it wasn’t black originally, as I did in the wine bottle photography live show.
You can also use Photoshop to create graduated lighting behind a product, as I demonstrated in our footwear live show, where I shot a football boot on a black background and then added a coloured glow of light behind in Photoshop.
If dark backgrounds aren’t the right choice for the subject you’re photographing, I also have a guide on creating white backgrounds.
To learn more about black background photography and other photographic techniques, take a look at our extensive range of photography classes and articles. Below are a few popular tutorials that you may find useful.