For the purposes of this post, note the background: it’s seamlessly black, with nothing at all visible. And that background was created with no work at all in Photoshop (other than removing a string I used to support the project) – it was created solely by careful placement of off-camera lights. As the method is pretty neat, I thought I’d show you how I did it.
The first technique most people think of for getting a black background is to, well, put something black behind the object. While this works, it requires careful lighting and spacing to ensure that the black object doesn’t become visible (as more than just solid black) in the image. I did just this outdoors with my amaryllis flower bud images, but I had to find flower buds with enough shaded space behind them to hang a black T-shirt on a spare chair well behind the depth of field of the image, and then whenever stray light hit the T-shirt you could see the folds in the fabric. Annoying.
For the maille bracelet I created a black background by putting absolutely nothing behind the maille. And I mean literally nothing: here’s what the maille looked like as I was setting it up:
That is the exact positioning used for the final image you saw earlier, and yes, that is my living room wall 10′ behind the project. And a brightly colored lithograph. And IKEA lamps.
To get the ugly wall to turn into a black background I used a bit of photographer magic: I illuminated the bracelet so brightly that the rest of the room looked black to my camera’s sensor. It’s just like taking a picture of a sunlit window from inside a dim room: if you expose the picture for the bright sunny window, the dim room will be massively underexposed (and possibly pure black).
To light the bracelet I used two off-camera flashes, one flash on each side of the project, aimed directly at the bracelet (and away from the wall behind the bracelet). Since light from the flashes could easily illuminate the items in the background and cause them to become visible, I snooted both flashes to narrow the beam of light the flashes projected.
The procedure was essentially this:
- Set up the project, camera, and flashes. Fiddle endlessly and curse at how hard it is to get a camera level and aimed at the center of a project.
- Determine the room lighting level by taking a sample image that’s properly exposed (in this case 0.6 seconds at f9, ISO 100; that’s the “natural light” picture you see above).
- Now change the camera’s exposure settings to massively underexpose the room (I ended up at 1/250th of a second at f9, ISO 100; work at as low an ISO as you can to make this easier).
- Put the flashes in manual mode, and begin experimenting with their power and positioning to get the desired lighting, paying attention to the background to ensure it stays black. I used a gray card here as my target when changing light levels dramatically, so I could get white-balance information for processing and have an easy-to-meter target.
- Take a few sample images with the flashes, import the images to Lightroom, and process them to evaluate the various lighting effects. Then return to the project, adjust the lighting, and take more sample images. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I experimented with a lot of flash positions, and here’s my final setup:
The project is hanging by a black thread from a stand (on our homemade 6′ tall cat tree), and the camera is on a tripod and has been leveled with the center of the project (using a flash hot-shoe bubble level). My Canon 580 exII flash is on a tripod (camera left); it’s set to manual and hooked up to the camera with a Nikon SC-17 extension cable for off-camera triggering (since everything is manual here I don’t care that the Nikon cable won’t do TTL with Canon gear). A Nikon SB-26 is set up on the shelf opposite the 580, set to manual, and triggered using the flash’s built-in optical slave mode. Both flashes are snooted with super-fancy custom made snoots (a white sheet of printer paper taped to a sheet of dark cardstock, then wrapped around the flash). My camera's cable release can be seen heading up to the shelf with the SB-26 on it; I probably didn’t have to use a cable release, but I’m so used to doing long-exposure macro work that I can’t work without one.2
And here’s what it looked like straight out of the camera:
And that’s why I always shoot in raw: the white balance is way off. But fixing the white balance was easy: I’d taken test shots with my final lighting setup using a gray card as a target, so a few clicks in Lightroom brought out the project’s natural coppery sheen (doing this in-camera would have worked too). Beyond white balance the processing was fairly straightforward: I adjusted the exposure and saturation a bit, touched up the exposure on the top few rows of the bracelet, cropped it, and then moved it into Photoshop to remove the thread and adjust the levels a teensy bit.
So there you go: getting a pure black background is quite straightforward, as long as you can make your subject much brighter than the background.
2 Careful observers will notice a second maille bracelet on the shelf next to the SB-26; I experimented with using that as a gobo, but eventually decided against using it in the final image.
To see more pictures of maille, head to my Chain mail – finished projects gallery.