How to: Getting a dark background


The last time I went to get some pics printed, a guy standing at the counter asked me “how did you do that?” about this Cosmos photograph.  What he meant was: how did you get that dark black background while still exposing the flower correctly?  He was purchasing a Canon EOS xti camera at the time (I think that was the model name) so he obviously knew something about photography. 

I mentioned a while back that I still have a lot to learn about lighting.  I do.  But, I can offer a basic how-to because I went and figured this part out on my own.  All of you experts can shoo because you’ll just laugh at my pitiful set up.  Trust me, it’s definitely pitiful.  I’m ok with that, because I can honestly say it’s not about the gear or the super expensive lighting set up.  If you know what you’re doing, you can work with what you have.  

So.  Basically, I underexposed the background by about 2 stops. 

Since I didn’t use lights, let me elaborate a bit on the set up.  I used natural light coming in from a nice window – not direct sunlight, but ambient light.  I love using natural light because it looks great and it’s free.  To get a similar look, you’ll need:

  • A camera with a macro lens (more on this in a minute) and a manual setting
  • A tripod
  • An even black background – I used black matboard
  • Something to hold the flower in place – a small vase filled with drinking straws works well
  • A reflector – I used a small piece of white matboard (sensing a theme here?)


For this to work, you want even lighting, a tripod to hold the camera steady, and a cooperative flower.  Mine kept swiveling around, so I tossed it inside a straw held upright by a tight mess of other straws. 

My background was about a foot away from the flower and tucked into the window curtain.  The curtain kept the matboard upright, but it also blocked a good bit of the ambient light from lighting the background.  By keeping the flower away from the matboard, I eliminated any texture and helped even out the light that I occasionally reflected back on it. 

Now, your camera, bless its little computerized heart, is going to try to do its darndest to correctly expose both the flower and the background.  That means you’re going to end up with a washed out flower and an equally washed out background if you only rely on the camera’s metering system.  (you can spot meter or use a handy little light meter, but that’s not required.)

Set your camera to the manual settings and pick your depth of field (by choosing your aperture size.)  I generally go with an extremely small aperture setting (f18 for this shot) but that’s because of my equipment setup.  You may be able to get away with a larger opening than I can.

Meter the shot with your camera, then adjust the shutter speed until it’s at least 1 full stop underexposed.  If you’re working with a digital camera, take the shot and see what it looks like.  Chances are you’ll have to go to 2 stops, or 1.5.  If you’re using the camera histogram to check the exposure, you’ll have to ignore the shadows because they totally block up.  That’s fine – you aren’t going for detail in the shadows anyway, at least, not in the background.

Now, before you take a shot you plan to keep, let’s talk about the reflector.  If you’re not an expert or a camera geek, chances are this is the first time you’ve used one.  Take your small piece of white matboard and hold it on the side of the flower that the light doesn’t come from.  See how the shadows on that side get a better exposure?  Play around with the reflector until you get the best angle of reflected light and then take your shot.  A self-timed exposure is a good idea if you’re klutzy like me. 

That’s pretty much it.  Happy shooting!

If you’re interested, my lens set up isn’t anything fancy.  I had my 50mm lens on, with several + filters on it.  Basically I had a magnifying glass strapped to the end of my camera.  It’s not ideal because I struggle with horrible depth of field even on the smallest settings I can use, but it works well enough that I can’t justify buying a super nice macro lens.  I dream of macro shots where everything is tack sharp, but in reality, this is fine.  It makes photographing bugs a pain because they won’t stand still, but flowers are a captive subject. 

(The petal texture on this shot is horrible, but that’s because of the flower/weed itself, not my lens.)


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