The secret to lighting a black background in photography is how you light your subject, not the type of light source you use. The same principles apply, regardless of whether you use artificial light or natural light.
In a nutshell, you want a large amount of light directly lighting your subject only for a black background portrait. So the most important thing is to ensure that the light isn’t illuminating the background as much as the subject.
The second most important dark background technique is using the right camera settings for the best results. You want a fast shutter speed with a small aperture.
Your camera settings are important for ensuring that the ambient light isn’t recorded, otherwise you won’t have a pure black background.
The easiest way to control exposure for good black background images is to photograph in manual mode. However, If you’re not comfortable in manual mode, you have options. We’ll get to them in a moment.
Of course there are also a few factors that make it easier to get a black background in photos, but you can do it even when photographing against a white background. So let’s first look at:
- Dynamic range for black background photos
- Lighting photos for black backgrounds
- Camera settings for a black background
Then I’ll show you how lighting for black background photography works in different settings.
1. How dynamic range affects black background
Dynamic range is the tonal range from pure white to pure black in an image. Because our cameras don’t see as well as our eyes can see, they can’t record the full tonal range in the same way we see it.
Some cameras can record a greater dynamic range than others, but even so, they’re nowhere near as good as our eyes.
So to create a black background in photos, even when it’s actually a white background, we take advantage of our camera’s lack of dynamic range for a dramatic look.
Further reading: What is dynamic range in photography exposure?
2. Lighting for black background in photos
Developing a better understanding of light is a good starting point for the black background look. I’ve written in detail about each of these points and you’ll find the articles really helpful for all types of photography lighting.
My lighting black background photography tips relate to:
- Direction of light
- Quantity of light
- Quality of light
Direction of light for black backgrounds
When you light a subject from the side or from behind the subject, less light will fall on the background than if you light a subject from the front.
This means that the subject will be brighter than the background, so when you expose for the subject the background will automatically be darker.
Once you have the direction of the main light figured out so that it doesn’t spill onto the background, all you need to do is ensure that there’s a lot of contrast in the image, which leads to my next point…
Quantity of light for black backgrounds
How much light you need to create a black background depends on where you’re photographing and the ambient light in the room, if indoors, or in the environment if outdoors.
Plus, the brighter the light is on the subject in relation to the background, the darker the background will be.
Further reading: Light quality and quantity of light – essential knowledge
Quality of light for black backgrounds
The final lighting technique for a black background portrait anywhere is the quality of light you use to light the subject. By quality I mean hard or soft light.
Hard light is more contrasty and easier for creating a black background, but you can also use soft light. It might just take a little more thinking if you’re using natural light. It’s much easier to control light in a studio with strobe lighting.
Further reading: Hard light vs soft light – when and how to use both types of lighting
These two photos were taken minutes apart in bright sunlight. The difference is that in the image on the left I metered for the highlights on the girl’s face, which were much brighter than the background in shadow.
For the photo of the boy I also metered for his face, but it was in shadow, so I set a slower shutter speed. This made the background lighter as there wasn’t enough contrast between the light on the boy’s face and the ambient light on the background.
3. Camera settings for black background portraits
Your camera’s exposure settings control the amount of light that’s recorded, but the metering mode you use is actually even more important.
Here’s the quick answer to what camera settings you should use for the dark background technique:
- Maximum shutter speed
- Smallest aperture
- Your camera’s default ISO
- Spot metering
But of course there’s more to black background photography settings than that, because everything depends on the light, where you’re photographing, as well as colors and tones in the image.
So let’s take a closer look at camera settings…
Shutter speed settings for black background
The most important camera setting for the dark background technique is shutter speed.
The longer the shutter stays open the more light will enter the lens and therefore the more light will be recorded. So you want a fast shutter speed to capture only the brightest part of the image, namely your subject.
This is true for any type of constant light, whether it’s natural light, LED lighting or even a room light. It’s also the case with high speed sync when using flash.
Aperture setting for black background
While your aperture setting is one of the main factors controlling depth of field in an image, it’s also responsible for controlling flash exposure. Wide apertures record more light than narrow apertures.
With high speed sync photography use aperture the same way you would with constant light photography. In other words, to control depth of field and not the amount of ambient light captured.
However, for black background photos with natural light try to use a small aperture. Depth of field becomes less important when you make the background black, so you don’t need a wide aperture for a blurry background.
ISO setting for black background
The best ISO setting to use for black background photos is your camera’s native ISO setting, which is usually 100 or 200 depending on your camera. This will ensure the best quality image with a true black background. Using the wrong ISO setting can make blacks less crisp.
Unless you use a handheld light meter, the most important camera setting for black backgrounds is the metering mode.
You want to use a metering mode that doesn’t include the background into the calculation. So, because spot metering measures the smallest portion of an image, it’s the best metering mode for photographing black backgrounds.
Position the spot on the brightest part of the image, which should be the subject, and meter the light. Then set your shutter speed, aperture and ISO for the correct exposure.
How to create a black background in photos
Now that you know the key elements of black background pictures, let’s get into the details of lighting black background photography:
- With natural light or artificial light
- Indoors or outdoors
How to photograph a black background outdoors
The most important thing for black background photography without flash is to position your subject in the light while making sure that there’s no direct light on the background.
So, the best way to get a black background outdoors without flash is to:
- Position your subject in bright sunlight
- Ensure the sun is not shining on the background
- Use spot metering to measure the light on your subject
- Set a faster shutter speed, narrower aperture and low ISO
If you’re not comfortable with manual mode you can use aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode, as long as you make sure that you use spot metering.
On a cloudy day it won’t be as easy to capture a black background outdoors as there won’t be enough contrast between the light areas and the dark areas of the image.
How to photograph a black background indoors
To get a perfect black background in photos you don’t have to plunge your portrait photography studio (or living room) into complete darkness with blackout blinds or drapes over the windows.
The maternity images further down were photographed in my studio that had two skylights and a row of large windows down one side.
The great thing about using strobe light in studio photography is that you’re completely in control of the light, which includes the power of the light. Of course, if the ambient light in the room is really bright, you’ll need a bright light. In which case a more powerful strobe will work better than a speedlight.
Flash photography camera settings
The two steps to creating a black background portrait with off camera flash are:
- Adjust your camera settings until you record a pure black image without flash
- Then add flash to light the subject and adjust the flash to expose accurately for the aperture setting on your black image
A good starting point for strobe lighting camera settings is:
- ISO: 100 or 200
- Shutter speed: 200 (or 250 if that’s the maximum flash sync speed of your camera, but it varies)
- Aperture: F4 – F8
I prefer to use an incident light meter to set my lights, but if you don’t have a light meter you could use the trial and error method.
Light modifiers for black background portraits
With strobe lighting you can create hard or soft light, depending on whether you photograph bare bulb or with a light modifier. The most important thing to keep the background dark is to get the light close to the subject for a quick fall off of light.
Incidentally, even a bare bulb can produce soft light on a subject if it’s close enough.
I’d recommend using softboxes, rather than photography umbrellas, for black background images, purely because umbrella lighting tends to bounce around a lot more. So it’s easier to control softbox lighting, especially if the softbox is fitted with a grid to prevent light spilling onto the background.
Portrait photography lighting setups for black backgrounds
It’s easy to get carried away adding lights to a portrait lighting setup, but a good rule of thumb is to use as few lights as possible to achieve the look you want.
Then use negative fill to darken shadows and reflectors to lift shadows.
I photographed this maternity portrait in my studio using one light with a white wall in the background. The image on the right is the same photo brightened in Lightroom to show you the setting.
One light setup for black background
A one light setup is the easiest for creating a black background portrait, purely because the less light you have bouncing around the room, the less chance there is that it’ll accidentally light the background.
Light your subject from:
- Behind for dramatic lighting to create a rim light effect
- The side if you want more of the subject to be lit and fewer dark shadows
I used two lights (a main light and a fill light) for this maternity portrait in my studio using one light with a white wall in the background. The background isn’t as dark, because of the fill light. The image on the right is the same photo brightened in Lightroom to show you the setting. You can see the shadow on the wall from the fill light as she was close to the background.
Two light setup for black background
You can also do a rim light portrait with two lights – one either side and behind the subject.
If you use a two light set up with a main light and a fill light, you need to ensure that the subject is further away from the background so that the light doesn’t spill onto the background.
Further reading: How to avoid shadows in indoor photography (walls and backdrops)
Using a black background for photos
One of the simplest ways to get a black background for photos is to use a black background. However, different types of materials photograph differently so we have so many types of backgrounds to choose from.
Black paper backdrop
If you have a studio, a plain black background paper roll on a wall mounted background system is an easy way to capture black background portraits. It doesn’t have to be a studio, of course, you could set up a paper background on a background stand in your living room.
In fact, the backdrop doesn’t even have to be black.
A gray paper background is far more versatile, because you can light it and have a gray background or use a lighting setup for black background images. You could even add a gel to strobe lighting and color the background, but that’s a subject for another tutorial.
Black fabric background
A black fabric backdrop (even a black bedsheet) is even easier than a paper roll system, especially if you use a portable backdrop stand. The effect is the same.
But speaking of fabric, velvet is the best type of black cloth to get a true black background, because it doesn’t reflect light.
I used a black velvet cloak for the photo above, which you can see in the photo on the right that I brightened in Lightroom to show you the fabric folds.
It’s a two light setup with a softbox on the main light in the Rembrandt lighting position and a large umbrella as a fill light from the front. So, even though there’s a lot of light coming from the front of the subject, it photographs really dark. However, I did darken the background in post to get a true black all over.
This is a one light setup photographed against a pop-up black velvet backdrop (lighting setup below). I used negative fill either side of the subject to ensure dark shadows, because it was a small studio with white walls that reflected light everywhere.
In the behind the scenes image of the portrait lighting setup you can see that the flash is positioned behind the backdrop pointing at a white wall. So the only light on the subject is reflected light from the white walls.
The image on the left shows the black velvet background and the flags I used for negative fill (they’re painted black on one side). The image on the right shows the position of my light behind the backdrop pointing at the white wall. The silver reflector behind the light is bouncing even more light around and preventing light shining through the back of the backdrop.
You don’t have to use black cloth, any piece of fabric can become a black background with the right lighting, camera settings and subject placement.
In the images above I used a mottled brown and blue muslin backdrop. The difference between the two photos is that the subject is closer to the background in the photo on the right, which is why the background is lighter. I you look closely you can tell by looking at the folds in the fabric.
Perfecting a black background in Lightroom
Sometimes, like in the example of the newborn photo above you need to finish off a photo with the burn tool in post processing to ensure that the background is a true black.
Masking in Lightroom is a great way to do this. You can either:
- Create a background mask and then darken the area
- Use the brush tool to paint over the area to darken
Further reading: How to darken background in Lightroom 10 ways (step by step)
Leave a comment
If you have any questions about capturing a pure black background in portrait photography, let us know in the comments.
Also, I love good news, so if my black background photography tutorial has helped you with lighting black background photography, share that too.