Boo's Digital Photography Tutorials.  No.3

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I'm often asked about some of the flower and natural subjects I've photographed with black backgrounds and backlit subjects, this is the technique I use. All of the photographs shown on this page have been shot following this principle, no backdrops were used and only modest retouching to the background areas if required.

What, no black paper?

A magnificent Swiss tulip photographed in May.  No. Well, not always, I sometimes need to cheat if the lighting conditions aren't conducive and I don't have the opportunity to return to the subject, see the Hybrid tea roses on the Flora & Macro page, the flowers were at their most perfect when the weather was truly lousy, so I did use a backdrop for them. But generally speaking, almost all of the flower studies I've done against dark backgrounds are simply taking advantage of the geometry of the location of the subject relative to the light source and manipulating the exposure to maximise the effect. My favourite time to work is at the end of the day, as the sun is setting and at a low angle - of course that's a different time of day in the different seasons.

The biggest help to you is a low angle of sunlight, this helps the geometry of your situation and is also a much more interesting source of light on your subject, more flattering than overhead light and with sunlight, it often takes on a much warmer glow as the day progresses.

You'll need to bob and weave:

The first Daffodil of 2003 on the day it opened. This technique will require you to do some ducking in diving, especially if your subject is growing in situ and can't be moved. You'll need to move about your subject to ascertain the best position - you need to be vaguely facing the light - I know that breaks many photography ground rules, but this is an exception - you want your subject illuminated, preferably from behind to make it glow. Probably the best angle is with the sun slightly ahead of you, but to one side.

Find a position relative to your subject, so that you're satisfied it is lit as you'd like, then move about a little more and try and position yourself so that there's an area of darkness in line with the subject filling the frame of your shot. If the light is low and you choose your position with care, there may very well be shadows on the ground or low that you can take advantage of. So now you should have a glowing, well illuminated subject with an area of dark background behind it in your proposed frame.

Set the exposure to maximise the effect:

  [As you can see, highlights in the background are giving rise to unwanted bokeh.]You've now done half the job, positioned yourself relative to the subject and light source, now you need to set an exposure to take advantage of it. The dark area behind your subject doesn't need to be totally black and devoid of detail, just sufficiently dark with no bright highlights of light to give you background bokeh - unless that's what you want. Bokeh are the bright spots of background that when totally out of focus give rise to light discs on your image.

  [A much more acceptable background can be achieved by a small movement.] As you can see from the examples shown above and right (you can click the thumbnails to see them a little larger) a modest shift if your position can make a big difference to the background. In the top shown thumbnail, bright spots in the background are giving rise to unacceptable patches of bright bokeh. By moving your position a step in either direction can change it completely. You may still have highlights in your background, but they're much more acceptable at the edges where they can be retouched out if required. In the end for that particular subject I abandoned the quest for a dark background in favour of more front on lighting on the berry - see below right.

  [Yew berries taken in the Aira Force Arboreturm.]  What you're now aiming for is an exposure that will properly expose your subject, with sufficient depth of field to get it all acceptably sharp, but also sufficiently shallow that the background isn't sharp, so a fairly wide aperture is required, what this should be will be determined by your lens specification, focal length and your position relative to the subject - a longer focal length and standing further from the subject will prove more beneficial than being close with a short focal length. You then need to use a fast shutter speed, which when combined with the aperture and focal length will correctly expose the subject, but prevent the dark background area from developing detail.

So in short, you'll lose more of the background if you're further from the subject and zoomed in on it and using a correct exposure that favours a wide aperture and fast shutter speed. I would recommend that if you're in a good lighting scenario and have ascertained a good position with your subject, take several shots bracketing the exposure and see what gives the most acceptable results, you want to ensure that your subject has sufficient depth of field for it all to be sharp, but your background detail not to be.

  [This poppy shot took advantage of a sudden ray of sunshine after a storm and the shadow provided under nearby palnts.]  You may find that the dark background, depending on the metering and shooting modes you're using, will indicate a longer exposure than you can actually get away with. Either spot meter from the subject itself, or experiment in manual mode to see what gives the best results. In each of the the examples shown on this page, I used manual mode and exposures that the camera was telling me weren't sufficient. You may find you need to increase ISO in order to secure a fast enough shutter speed to prevent the background being exposed, especially if your lens is limited to narrower apertures, as may be the case with longer focal lengths and less expensive lenses.

A working example:

This example was a photograph I took in an aboretum late in the afternoon on a gloriously crisp, sunny October day. My project for the afternoon was to secure some suitable shots for my Christmas cards and I wanted some macro shots of pine and yew trees. One particular branch of pine needles were in full sun close to heavy tree cover and I thought it had potential for such a shot.

 [My position relative this subject obviously needed adjustment]  Shown right is one of the first shots I took of the branch that interested me, largely looking towards the light. As you can see, the light was unacceptable, I was getting lens flare and far too many bright spots in the background. By rotating left around the subject for about 90 degrees, so that the sun was still largely ahead of me, but from my left, the pine needles were well illuminated and I now had some deep shadow areas behind the subject to utilise for my dark background. I also opted to remove some of the branch ends from the shot and my son held them out of the way while I worked.

Backlit pine needles in the low autumn sunshine.  Once I was happy with the scene in the viewfinder, I needed to ascertain the correct exposure and the dark background was giving rise to exposures that left the hightly illuminated subject over-exposed and allowed some background colour to develop. You therefore need to either spot meter off the subject, or if you don't have this option, work in manual mode and estimate adjustments from the camera suggested exposures, that take into account the nature of your scene. For the pine needles shown, the meter suggested 1/100 @ f5.6 and 400ISO, the most pleasing shot (shown right) was taken at 1/400 @ f5.6 at 400ISO. In this instance I used the 28-135mm IS USM Canon lens on my Canon 300D at full focal length, in macro mode.

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