Black Senior Portrait Background

For this blog post I’ll be sharing my technique for getting a busy background to look like a Black Portrait Background (similar to what you’d find in a photography studio). The final image was achieved with four flashes and camera settings that helped me to take the background right out of my final shot (without using Photoshop).

I was on a photography assignment in Michigan when I received a call to see if I was available for a senior portrait shoot in the area. It turns out Nichole already had a senior portrait session but she was really unhappy with the entire experience. It turns out Nichole was a beautiful girl and her bad experience was completely the fault of her previous photographer. I quickly said “yes” but because of the time of year we couldn’t go out to a nice location for her shoot. I love a challenge and this was sure to be fun. We created a bunch of images I really loved right in her living room. We started our shoot by simulating a black background.

Photographing in a Well Lit Room

I began the photo shoot by talking with Nichole and learning as much as I could about her and her previous experience. I really wanted her to know that I was going to work hard to ensure she looked her best. I told her that we’d be starting with some really basic stuff but we’d be getting more complicated as the shoot progressed. The shoot began with Nichole looking shy but by the end of the shoot she had the confidence of a woman who loves being in front of a camera.

Nichole’s parents had a beautiful home but I didn’t want final images that looked like the entire shoot was in her house. I decided to use camera settings along with numerous flashes to help Nichole look great and allow the background to fade away. As I brought in a bunch of lighting equipment I explained to Nichole that my gear was going to help her look incredible (her previous photographer didn’t use a single flash or show any interest in helping her look good).

I began by setting up two flashes. My main light was going to be my 3′ octa-shaped softbox by Photoflex. This light modifier is my favorite for portraits. It has gold and silver inserts but I used the softer looking white interior. To reduce the hot spot I used the interior diffusor along with the standard outer diffusor. The 3′ octa was placed on a boom arm to camera right.

The next flash I brought in was a 1.5′ octa-shaped softbox with an egg crate grid. This softbox uses a silver interior so the light is a lot “punchier” than the 3′ octa. I like to use a diffusor on the strobe and keep the interior diffusor installed to soften the light but I leave the outer diffusor off to keep a little punch in the light. I placed this flash to camera left (on a light stand) a little behind Nichole and aimed it down just a bit.

We took a quick test shot to look at camera settings and flash power levels. The camera was set to f5.6 and the shutter speed was set to 1/90th of a second (ISO 200) to get some of the background into the shot. Here’s a look at one of Nichole’s first shots as we began getting things dialed in:

Nichole was looking great but I wasn’t thrilled with how her hair looked a little “big”. I had her change the way she was facing and her hair looked much better with the new positioning. I reset the lights and took a few more test shots to really get the power levels of my strobes dialed in. Here’s a look at Nichole in her new position and with a new lighting setup:

Removing the Background with Camera Settings

With the lights positioned I changed the shutter speed to drop the backgound light level (the strobes were outputting about f5.6 so bumping up the shutter speed doesn’t change how Nichole looks to the camera). I like to darken the background as much as possible without going past the flash sync speed of 1/250th of a second. The final shutter speed ended up at 1/200th of a second for f5.6 (ISO 200) and it really darkened the background nicely. Here’s a look at a shot with the new camera setting:

I really liked how the scene was shaping up. Now my challenge was preventing her dark shirt from blending into the background.

Black Shirt on a Black Background

An easy solution for preventing Nichole’s black shirt from blending into the background is to ask her to change shirts. In extreme situations this might be the only answer. Nichole was wearing the black shirt before I arrived and she spent considerable time getting ready for her shoot (including hair and makeup) and she chose the black shirt specifically for her shoot. To me that meant it was important to get shots of her wearing her black shirt. Whenever I run into an issue on a location shoot my first thought (usually) is to add more flashes. This approach happened to work great on this shoot.

To help separate her from the background and bring out some detail in her shirt I added in a rim light and a kick light. The additional lights were placed and aimed to prevent light from spilling into the background. The kick light was placed on the floor and I used a 32″ white shoot-through reflector to soften the light. Here’s a look at a shot with four flashes and a 1/200th shutter speed:

With the flashes placed and the power levels set I was able to forget about technical things (like camera settings) and just work with Nichole to get her looking perfect. I love working with people and talking when I’m shooting. Not having to think about the lights or my camera frees me up to draw out the personality of my subject. Nichole came to life and we got some really great shots. Here’s a look at how all of the lighting was set up to remove the room and get Nichole looking great (even with the room lights turned on and Nichole wearing a black shirt):

After a few shots of Nichole sitting we changed things around a bit for some standing shots before we took a break for an outfit change. Nichole changed into a great looking red shirt so I made a big change to how I lit the room. But that’s a story for a future blog post.

Note: another solution is to use high-speed sync flash capability built into most camera/flash systems. Keeping the shutter speed below 1/250th lets you use any flash (including big studio strobes) instead of requiring specific flashes (or a camera with a leaf shutter) and working through complicated menu settings. Sometimes you need to go that route but this wasn’t one of those situations.

If you have any questions or comments be sure to leave me a comment below and I’ll do my best to respond as quickly as possible.

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