Quick and Easy Trick For Adding a Black Background to Your Shots Anywhere

Photographer Glyn Dewis shared this cool little technique that lets you work with a black background even if you don’t have an actual backdrop with you. It’s a fairly common trick that he refers to as “the invisible black background,” and it’s a nifty little tip that many photographers may want to keep up their sleeve.

The technique is pretty simple: all you need is your camera, an off camera flash, and an umbrella. In Dewis’ case, he’s using a Nikon D800, a Canon Speedlight (he dropped and broke his Nikon flash) and a Pocket Wizard so the two can communicate.

Taking into account a max flash sync speed (not hypersync) of 1/250 sec, Dewis sets his exposure there. He then drops his ISO to the lowest possible setting and stops down his aperture until the resulting test shot (without flash) comes out completely black.


Then he turns on the speedlight, closing down the umbrella so that it funnels the light only at his subject, and takes the same shot, now with flash. The background will still be as black as it was in the no flash test shot (assuming there’s no unchecked reflections), but his subject is lit. Voila: instant black background.

Obviously, you’ll have to play around with this until you get the light just right, and when you’re indoors you’ll have to deal with more reflection issues, but it’s a neat tip that’ll provide a dramatic-looking black background on the fly no matter where you are.

(via ISO 1200)

  • IAmAfauxtog

    Wouldn’t you get a similar effect with a smallish softbox too?
    Though I guess with using a black reflective umbrella partially closed, your controlling the spill around the subject.

  • IAmAfauxtog

    Oh i should watch the video before I comment ;)

  • Mansgame

    This isn’t any big secret but you can only get away with it when it’s cloudy or otherwise dark and with a small flash, you barely have enough power to pull it off for a headshot.

    In his example he’s shooting at f/16 1/250 ISO 100. If it was a sunny day, that would be a 1 1/2 stop underexposed picture (following the sunny 16 rule) so he’d have to go up to f/22 or even put in an ND filter on to get all black. There is no way one little speedlight can power that.

    So nice try skippy…now watch the master do it:

  • scatterbrained

    Not exactly anything new, in studio shooting there is a basic rule of thumb, 4 1/2 stops down from proper exposure will get you black. Using the inverse you can simply figure the proper exposure for ambient using a grey card or incident meter, then move down 4 1/2 to 5 stops and you’ll have exposure settings for your flash that will render you a black background.

  • eisie

    This is a very basic photographic lighting.

  • nicetry

    hello I am a taking a black and white 1 class in high school and I thought that going from f/16 to f/22 is properly referred to as going/stopping down.

  • Bah

    What about diffraction? It would be preferable to use ND filters.

  • Ivan

    ND would cut both flash and ambient light so more powerful flash would be needed to compensate for the loss. The trick in this particular case is to suppress ambient light as much as possible while preserving lighting from small portable strobes. And diffraction should not be a real issue here, it really depends on the lens but up to f/16 or f/18 quality should be unaffected. In studio, I was routinely shooting at f/11 to f/16 with absolutely razor sharp results (with Speedotron 2400 WS pack usually at 1/2 or less power, never tried single channel full power and f/22 to f/32 though).

  • ennuipoet

    You could also make a Snoot for your Speedlite to control the light on the subject. I just use some black construction paper and tape.

  • Ken Elliott

    Both the aperture and ND filters cut flash and ambient. So there’s no difference in that regard. Diffraction will depend on the camera used. The Nikon D800 shows diffraction around f/5.6 to f/8.

  • jas

    He’s not in Australia. He ain’t no skip. That is a pommy accent ya git, they even look like pommy geezers. The number plate on the car is pommy. The web site on the side of the van ends in “.uk”. The trees are even pommy. That ain’t no Australian accent mate, that’s from the mother land, that’s where the ENGLISH language originated

  • Zos Xavius

    This is true. Problem is that you are deep into diffraction at f22. An nd would be pretty useful.

  • Vlad Dusil

    Use a mirrorless with leaf shutter such as the X100s or RX1 and you get 4 more stops to darken the background and extra power out of your flash.

  • Jason

    I don’t understand all the hype this is getting. There must not be any other tutorials out there, but this is fairly basic outdoor lighting knowledge.

  • Anthony

    Congratulations to everyone in the comment section who already knew this. Give yourselves a high five. Gloat a little. Everyone feeling good now? Because some people didn’t know this. Like me. We all learn sometime. Every post doesn’t have to be some big new secret or technique, otherwise some of us would never learn the basics.

  • bob cooley

    Lenses cause diffraction, not cameras.

  • Chris Pickrell

    This isn’t a new trick, it’s the nature of having variable lighting. This has been a standard “trick” for decades.

  • Chris Pickrell

    Is it really hard to carry around a piece of black form core, or black construction paper, or something? I bet those are cheaper than the “cheap” umbrella he bought.

  • 9inchnail

    No one is bothered by tutorials for beginners but taking a basic lighting technique and writing that the guy came up with it is just ridiculous. It’s like dropping a ball and saying you just came up with gravity.

  • DLCade

    Good point :) We went ahead and edited the text a bit. Thanks!

  • Mansgame

    I totally read that in an Aussie accent. Good job!

  • Mansgame

    Sorry, you are correct. It’s technically stopping down but I meant using a higher f/stop.

  • Mansgame

    This is a very respectable photoblog read by professionals and advanced amateurs alike. If you’re going to show a technique, you better bring it and none of that weak-sauce common knowledge stuff.

  • Eugene Chok

    yea this is photo basics ?

  • Humbleenoughnottobeanass

    Do you ever notice how so many people are “experts” when they post comments. I wonder how many of the negative comments on this page were written by people who have never added any useful or constructive information to the World Wide Web…let alone a video. This photographer took his time to make a video that might just help someone one, and all so many want to do is criticize the guy. Yeah…I knew it too, but there was a time that I didn’t. So what…does that mean that I’m automatically better than he is? If you already knew…good for you…move on or make your own video showing us something that NOBODY has every seen before. Can’t wait to see it. I swear, the internet has disconnected people from manners and common courtesy in every sense.

  • Courtney Navey

    True his set up only works on a cloudy day but you could always put more than one speedlite in the umbrella. I have 5 speedlites I use for outside shooting b/c I don’t want to make the investment in a vagabond and big lights and so on. But you’re right, no big secret just basic photographer common sense.

  • Ken Elliott

    Ha ha! Well, it’s actually the aperture blades that cause diffraction. But it is recorded by the camera sensor – and that sensor’s resolution will determine when you will SEE diffraction. If I put the exact same lens on a 12MP Nikon D700 and a 36MP Nikon D800, diffraction is visible at a larger aperture on the higher resolution sensor. You’ll see diffraction at f/8 on the D800 that can’t be seen on the D700. That’s why I said the camera matters – it’s the recording device. Perhaps this page will reduce confusion on the subject.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Shooting out your ambient isn’t some special technique – it’s one of the most basic concepts in flash photography.

  • Brian Zuzulock

    Mind blown.. five speedlites is less of an investment than a vagabond and an alienbees strobe? Maybe if your buying garbage brand yongnuo but for about the same price of one canon/nikon speedlite you could have a vagabond/alienbees with way more bang for your buck in light output.

  • Courtney Navey

    hmmmm…no junk…I have a canon 580 ex II for my camera but doubles as my key light, and 4 Nikon sb 28s that were all bought on ebay b/w $68 and $77 over time. I use rechargeable eneloops so….yeah. I bought my pocket wizards used and got really good deals on those. So I’m pretty much ready for any setup I could dream up and still spent less than buying three AB 800s and a VG batt.

  • Chris Pickrell

    But here’s the thing, while you’re right, some people dont’ know this. But the fact that the article was headlined and written as if this was a “personal” trick, as if this was something that they allegedly discovered. Rather than “Hey, need a black background, this is a basic lighting 101, explained really simply that you all should know.”

    So congrats on misreading why people who do in fact know their craft, were annoyed at the misdirection of the wording of the article.