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Experiments in photography: Invisible black backdrops October 15, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in image.

Invisible black backdrops. We see these photos everywhere – think of photos where there are just 2 things – a subject in front and a solid plain black background. Often the photos are b/w, but not necessarily. If you like portraits you probably love those photos too for they so well constrain the focus (pardon the pun) on the subject without letting distractions get in the way. For long I have wondered how these were done. Naively I thought it was literally black background consisting of a plain screen or a wallpaper with low enough light on the subject. I even tried it to replicate it 3 years ago but failed – it was impossible to get the subject lit up without the background lit up as well at which point it wouldn’t be dark background after all.

Why I did not bother looking it up befuddles me – I always thought I was a member of the first ever generation to google their thoughts – look up everything online. Apparently not.  Anyway, I did finally look it up a few weeks ago and found out that the trick is more elaborate and what I had been trying was indeed naive. This past weekend I decided to try it the right way.

Here is a blog post from photographer Gyln Dewis that describes in rather detail how this is accomplished. And if that were not enough here is video of him doing it. Over the weekend I went about following Gyln’s instructions. It required renting some equipment and I am more than pleased with the results! Now there is enough detail in Gyln’s post to reproduce his results and I completely owe everything I was able to do to his post. This post is for those of you who need that last bit of spoon-feeding and a matter of record for me anyway!

Given the windy weekend, with my rather light stand I was only able to work indoors something that Gyln cautions against and rightly so. It is hard to prevent light reflecting off the walls but its possible if you have at least one large room, maybe with more trial and error than usual but not impossible.

Now if you are in NYC you have absolutely no excuse for not getting this right. Read Gyln’s post and come back here.

What you need to have:

I used this flash, this umbrella, a pair of transceivers and a stand to mount the umbrella and flash. You need an off-camera flash cable that connects the flash to one of the transceivers – again something that should come along when you rent all the above, but ask to make sure anyway. I used a Canon 60D, but any entry level DSLR that can use an off-camera flash should do. If you are around nyc, go to csirentals on 19th street between 6th and 7th avenue – they have it all. They give you transceivers with batteries – 2 pairs and the flash comes with a pair of batteries as well. They even give you 4 spare batteries just in case. All of this cost me $55 in rental costs over the weekend: Fri 1pm – Mon 10 am.

What you do with what you have:

1. Set up the stand and fix the umbrella. Mount the flash on the stand – be careful here and make sure its well-secured.

2. One transceiver T1 goes on to your camera like an on-camera flash would have – don’t worry if you have not done this before, its impossible to get this wrong.

3. Hang the other transceiver T2 on the stand. Use cable to connect to the flash.

4. Settings: I followed Gyln instructions on Manual mode with ISO 100, and 1/250 sec. F/6.3 worked better for me than F/5.6. I used a 50mm potrait lens but any lens that permits the above configuration should do.

5. Flash setting is key – the above flash has 5 finer granularity at each main level: 1/8 (-7), 1/8 (-3), 1/8 (0), 1/8 (+3), 1/8 (+7) and so on at each main level 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1. I started at 1/4 (0) and ended up using 1/8 (+7). But this really depends on 2 things: a) the ambient light and b) how you want your photos to be.

Other things to remember:

1. I was cheated by the Canon 60D screen/preview brightness setting at first – photos looked well-exposed but weren’t so on my computer until I digitally filled light. So watch out.

2. Again about trying this indoors: I did one session in the afternoon and one in the night after dark. The night session I had one corner light in the room in front of the subject (so I can focus!) but I felt more comfortable doing it in the day. In any case, find a place where the subject is farthest from any wall/reflecting surface.

3. Extra batteries might come in more than handy if you use higher power settings on the flash. I was able to get nearly 200 flashes over 3 hours over 2 days.

Thats it – its really easy if you have the right equipment and some patience for try things out.

And now for the results:

Here are couple of photos I thought I would share.

invisible black background



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