Black Backgrounds

Beautiful, lush, and colourful out-of-focus backgrounds certainly add interest and appeal to any bird photograph.  High-key, which I wrote about here, when well done can offer some added artistic value.  Another type of background, which is not often seen but can be very dramatic, is the all-black background.

In the right situation, these are rather easy to create.  When presented with a well lit subject, especially a lightly toned one, placed in front of a darkly shaded area, it is just a matter of exposing correctly for said subject (what else is new! 😉 ).  Today’s digital cameras’ dynamic range, although improving with every new generation, is still very limited compared to the human eye.  With the camera wanting to expose for a neutral 18% grey, dark backgrounds throw off the metering sensor and tend to over-expose these scenes.  In comes manual correction to dial down the exposure down to properly expose the subject, and with the limited dynamic range this brings the already dark background to a solid black, or very close to it.  Right in camera, no special processing usually needed.  Brighter areas or highlights that may still be visible at times are a snap to remove in post-processing if you choose to do so.

Reddish Egret (white morph)Reddish Egret, Canon 7D + 100-400L @330mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/2000s., f/6.3, ISO 400.

As a side-but-important-note, manual exposure is vital here for a moving subject that is lit by constant light as it moves – if the background behind your subject changes you are toast (unless you remember to press the exposure lock button when in another exposure mode – I never do).  As an example, see this same Reddish Egret, taken from the same series, two frames later (on a camera that shoots 8 frames per second).  The egret flew out of the shadowed dark background, onto a well lit one, in a fraction of a second…but the exposure on it remained perfect:

Reddish Egret (white morph)Reddish Egret, Canon 7D + 100-400L @330mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/2000s., f/6.3, ISO 400.

Rendering a background as all black is usually done one of two ways when adjusting the exposure:  reducing the shutter speed, or stopping down the aperture (or a combination of both).  You could always just adjust the ISO, but I rarely touch it during my photography sessions, once set.  For the image of the plant below, stopping down was the perfect recipe, as this ensured all three flowers as sharp as the other.

Moccasin Flower

Moccasin Flower, Canon 7D + 100-400L @235mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/500s., f/13, ISO 800.

Combining a black background with some backlighting (a combination that some call “blacklit”) can provide the ultimate dramatic effect, in my opinion of course!  Just as in silhouettes, photographing an easily identified species that can be named just by shape is shape.  Here I had the benefit of a high sun also lighting the loon’s back to spotlight its distinctive checkered pattern as it swam in front of a deeply shaded cove.

Common LoonCommon Loon, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1250s., f/7.1, ISO 400.

Another way to achieve this type of background is to use flash as main light, with a background set far away – this way flash fallout prevents the light from reaching background elements thus rendering it black.  It’s a matter of way underexposing the subject intentionally, and then using flash to light it, and its perch.  Had I not used the flash for the image below it would have likely been completely black, subject included.  Just another way to get interesting results.

Crab Spider on Goldenrod

Crab Spider, Canon 7D + 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/125s., f/9, ISO 800, 580EX flash @+ 1 FEC.

Just like high-key, black backgrounds can be an acquired taste and perhaps not to everyone’s preference, but it is an interesting effect that will no doubt bring drama and variety to any portfolio.  Plus, it is always fun and a learning experience to experiment, especially when it gets oneself out of the proverbial box!



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  1. Nikhil Rao August 6, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    Hi Dan

    Amazing inspiring shots and great write up. Thanks for sharing your creativity and knowledge.

    Wow the whites on the egret is very cool. Inspiring.

    All the shots are very cool. The loon shot is a unique one.

    • Daniel Cadieux August 6, 2016 at 8:28 pm #

      Hey Nikhil, thanks! I’m rather proud of that loon shot.

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