In English, Happy St. David’s Day!
Being Welsh, I thought I would mark St. David’s Day with an image of a daffodil, the national flower of Wales. After all, I can still remember having a daffodil pinned to my jumper before heading off to school in the 1960s!
I didn’t want just any type of image though, I wanted to try a technique I’ve known about for a long time but never managed to get around to using before – creating a black background without actually using a physical background.
This technique uses nothing more than the absence of light. It’s quite simple really, once you understand the principle. You don’t need a studio or any fancy lighting gear (I certainly don’t have any), just a flash that you can fire off-camera.
Set up your composition such that there is plenty of distance between your subject and the actual background of the room you are working in, about 10 feet should be enough and often much less (this works well outdoors too if it’s not too bright and you can manage to get enough separation). Focus on your subject and then switch to manual focusing to lock the focusing distance and prevent the camera trying to autofocus.
Here’s a test shot straight out of the camera with the background visible:
You need to use off-camera flash to one side of your subject, so either use an extension lead as I did, or a remote trigger. Position it a few feet away. You should set your shutter speed to your camera’s flash sync speed, usually 1/125 sec. With ISO set to minimum (usually 100 or 200 depending on your camera), now select an aperture such that the whole image will become black. You may need to take several test shots to find the right setting. With this, I needed f/11 (although I did have ISO on 400 by mistake, it wasn’t a problem). Once you have your black test shot, connect the flash and take another test shot.
The flash should illuminate the subject with no light reaching the background so it stays totally black. Adjust the flash to subject distance to increase or decrease the brightness of the exposure, or if your flash allows you can dial in some flash compensation to reduce the light output. My flashgun is a bit antiquated and doesn’t have that ability, probably bought sometime around 1978!
You can also use small aperture adjustments as well if your subject is over or under exposed, but be careful not to open up too wide or your background will start to appear.
If light from the flash does reach your background (potentially bouncing off the surrounding walls and ceiling), try using baffles to deflect the light. I simply had mine sitting on a sofa with the arm of the sofa acting as a baffle. A reflector such as white card placed on the far side of your subject will bounce some light back onto the darker side of the subject so it doesn’t become too dark. A lens hood is useful to help prevent flare from light striking the front lens element.
If you don’t have a separate flash, just your on-camera flash, you could still try this technique. You’ll need enough distance to the background so the light doesn’t reach it (on-camera flash is fairly weak anyway) and you’ll be using frontal lighting which isn’t always flattering, so the reflector to one side might help. If the lighting is too harsh and you don’t have a diffuser for your flash, try cutting the end from a shower gel bottle and placing it over the popup flash to soften the effect.
I also tried a monochrome conversion, which can work well with this setup:
This probably took me about 20 minutes to set up and a lot of that was spent hunting for my old flash gear! A technique I’ll definitely revisit when I find other suitable subjects and I have more time to spend in both modifying the lighting and editing the results with some dodging & burning.
You can find lots of tips on this approach by searching for “photography black background flash“.