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The Invisible Black Backdrop Technique - Part #1

Published August 20th, 2012

So since I started doing A level photography, my current subject title involves having to take portraiture. This includes a varied amount of styles and techniques ranging from a broad time spectrum. One noticeable and impacting technique I would have to learn and replicate during the course is
or in more simple laymen terms the invisible black backdrop technique.



This technique I am currently trying to get to grips with and master involves various points of metering on the camera in order to achieve the effect of a pure black background yet also a correctly lit subject with enough detail, some examples include : [1], [2] and [3].



This simple technique is known to bring about instant drama and impact to a photo yet is also challenging for both novices and the experienced, with the key elements involving elimination and illumination. This type of photography allows the photographer to bring about striking contrasts through reduced lighting and making the dark shadows the primary element within the composition.



In simplistic terms low key photography requires a camera and one light source, however with my first hand experience when I just started off without knowing much it certainly was not the case. There are two main things to consider when setting up to take a low key photograph, the first thing was metering, which was easily adjustable on most DSLRs with a manual mode. The first point of metering is where I adjusted the ISO, keeping it constant and somewhere between the range of 100-200 allowing for good image quality but also keeping the parts of the images you want dark to stay dark. The second phase of metering was the sync speed, or also known as the shutter speed, keeping it around the range of 1/200 or 1/250 which was the standard that my camera could keep up with when using a flash, more so the external flash ( I never actually used my on board pop flash because it just destroys the purpose of low key photography). The final and third part of metering was the aperture, this was to be kept wide (a low f stop number) ranging from f/8.0 or lower allowing for the right amount of light to be let in.



The second part of low key photography and most important was lighting, with the previous step involving setting up the camera to capture no light other than the light that I wanted to i.e. an external flash or natural sunlight on the subject. Ensuring that the camera did not pick up any of the ambient/natural light at all, creating an instant black back drop. With no controlled lighting once the camera is set up I'd have exactly that - just a black background. This is where the control of lighting comes in, a part that I find extremely hard during my progress in trying to replicate this technique.



With many guides such as this guide by Glyn Dewis, which I am currently following instructing me to use a speedlite or external flashgun I simply had no access to one (though in the near future I am considering in purchasing one, however they're really expensive for a student like me) and hence I relied on what I had, a lamp, few torches and the natural sunlight. From there all I did was experiment, with the ones involving torches and lamps not going so well as the ones with natural sunlight, turning out slightly better. However my ultimate challenge will be to recreate this technique on a person, to do what I set out to do; create and impacting image in portraiture using low key techniques.



I'll keep you up to date with how things are progressing as I learn and try to master such techniques, however for now below are my current pitiful attempts.

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Vault Boy.

Done using a torch with some tissue/paper to diffuse the strong light onto the figure, the back drop was a white a3 piece of card.

  • August 19th, 2012
  • Canon EOS 600D
  • 50mm / f/5.6 / 1/200 sec
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Bunny

Using natural light coming from the window onto the window sill, I was rather pleased at this attempt being the the background consisting of books and shelves was completely under exposed and correctly blacked out.

  • August 19th, 2012
  • Canon EOS 600D
  • 50mm / f/1.8 / 1/4000 sec
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Leaf Stem I

Like all my attempts, the use of natural light in images have been the ones that have turned out the best. Done in an alley way on the way back home, the sun simply shone onto the leaf whilst the backdrop of fences was in the shadows allowing for a pure black background to be underexposed whilst the leaves were exposed correctly to create this effect.

The closest success I've had so far unfortunately and quality is off due to the wind buffeting the plants.

  • August 20th, 2012
  • Canon EOS 600D
  • 50mm / f/5.6 / 1/250 sec
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Leaf Stem II

Like all my attempts, the use of natural light in images have been the ones that have turned out the best. Done in an alley way on the way back home, the sun simply shone onto the leaf whilst the backdrop of fences was in the shadows allowing for a pure black background to be underexposed whilst the leaves were exposed correctly to create this effect.

The closest success I've had so far unfortunately and quality is off due to the wind buffeting the plants.

  • August 20th, 2012
  • Canon EOS 600D
  • 50mm / f/5.6 / 1/250 sec

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