Could Black be the new White? Photographers have been shooting Hi Key portraits against white backgrounds for a long time now, perhaps too long, and I just wonder if Hi Key has had its day?
I have this thought because more and more photographers are asking me how to shoot against a black background. The difference between the two backgrounds is obvious, but the results you can achieve shooting against black can be far more rewarding in my opinion.
There can be some technical issues shooting against black, and they very much depend on the background material you choose. Shooting with black paper for instance can have its difficulties, as it still has reflective properties. Photographers are all lovely people, but sometimes they can be a little naïve. A snapper I know recently took some shots against said black paper background and was shocked when they all appeared a very light grey. When he asked me for some advice I reminded him (again) that light is funny stuff and sometimes won’t do exactly what you want.
He’d set up his lights for the shoot in the same way he shoots Hi Key, but with the background lights switched off. The problem though is not with the lights, but with the background. Any light that hits it direct will dilute its density dramatically, and that’s what happened to my snapper chum. This dilution effect can happen with most shades of background papers and it’s always worth choosing a slightly darker tone than you need to help overcome the problem.
The other way to overcome these issues is to light from side on, or top down if possible. The key thing is to keep the light from falling directly onto the background paper behind the subject. Using these techniques will reduce the washed out colour problem, but it does tend to restrict your lighting options somewhat.
There is help at hand and the answer is to choose a background that will be easier to light, and I’m pleased to say that there are now options to choose from. I tested a great background recently, a new WexPro Black and White version that has really thick black velvet material. The new backgrounds come in a range of sizes and I tested the 6x7 feet collapsible version. The background comes in two parts, the frame a conventional white translucent and a thick black velvet cover that slips over it. The thickness of the material is the key to its success, as thicker, more dense velvet material will absorb most of the light that falls on it, making it so much easier to light, in fact you can light it, front on, just as you would in Hi Key.
Unlike white Hi Key I like the way that shooting against black seems to focus all the attention onto the subject. The other reason I like black is because I love shooting low-key portrait work. In fact the many questions I’ve received recently are about how to shoot low-key. Once again using black velvet is the answer and together with a few key lighting accessories, it couldn’t be simpler. Low key is all about using light and shade, (chiaroscuro, is the proper word to describe it) to produce portraits with more intensity and emotion than Hi Key. Hi Key does favour kids and families, but you can shoot similar subjects low-key and still produce stunning portraits of great depth and interest.
It also appears from the emails and calls I get that low key can be frustrating for some people because it can take a little time to get right, but here are a few top tips to get you started. Lets talk accessories first, choosing the correct options will save you a lot of set up problems. The key to shooting successful low key, is to produce either one, or a number of small pools of very controllable light onto the subject. To do this properly you need to use Snoots, or Grid Reflectors with Honeycombs. It’s these accessories that will give you the control you need to produce those very directional pools of light.
The timing of this background test couldn’t have been better, because a photographer I know had been trying to arrange a shoot and wanted me to assist for the day, something I do regularly. Anyway after a couple of cancellations, (due to models pulling out) we agreed a day and my chum Jas Sagu, the photographer, arranged the models, clothes and the make up artist. Jas wanted to learn more about shooting Hi Key fashion, but was more interested in Low Key work so I took the background with me to try out.
We met up a few days ago and the first thing we did was set up the WexPro background. It’s an easy pop up 6x7 feet job and the black velvet cloth fits onto the white translucent frame, just like pulling on a duvet cover! The WexPro background can be used on a support or just free standing, the way we used it, standing against the studio wall.
Jas uses Bowens and we set up our main light, a Gemini 500R in the middle of his studio, about 3 metres from the backdrop. Jas used the classic Bowens Softlite reflector to shoot with and we started with our first model of the day Levi. We asked Levi to stand about half a metre away from the black background and started shooting some test shots. After some nice straightforward shots of Levi standing and seated, less than a metre from the black velvet, we moved on to some low key work, using one Gemini head then two. Each of the Gemini 500R’s were fitted with Grid reflectors and Honeycombs.
We shot some really nice stuff with Levi, making only very subtle changes using one head overhead to light the head and face, and one light from low down, filling in some of the shadow areas. Using two lights like this is very rewarding, especially with a model like Levi, you just couldn’t take a bad picture of him.
From shooting Levi, we moved on to our next two models, Amrit and Simren, both wearing beautiful clothes, each with great hair and make up. Again Jas shot using the Softlite reflector first and then low key with our two Grid reflectors with Honeycombs. We lit Amrit and Sim in the same way we shot Levi, one head from above, the other on a low stand front on and side on, to produce a range of great shots.
As you can see from the results, the type and feel of the work that you can shoot against black can be very special. For me I just love the Low Key stuff, where you can almost paint with light, creating the light and shade to bring out people’s real character. It would be such a shame to shoot models like Levi in a rather bland High Key style, when he has such great features that can be shown at their best Low Key. I also thought that the images of Sim and Amrit were just brilliant, showing that you can shoot women Low Key to make the most beautiful portraits and I hope you like them as much as I do.
And just to show that the WexPro background can also shoot nice Hi Key stuff when the white side of the material is used, here are a couple of shots to prove it. A nice pair of overexposed (by 1 to 2 stops on purpose) dreamy, fashion Hi Key shots. By the way all the images shown here are pretty much straight out of the camera and have not been edited apart from the odd crop. Jas shot them with his Nikon D90 using a range of lenses including his nice Nikon 50mm 1.4 and my own Nikon 85mm.
To sum up the WexPro Background is very easy and it really does what you want any black background to do. You can shoot at it direct and you can pour light directly into it knowing that the colour will not degrade but remain jet black every time. The only thing that we had to do on the shoot was use a few clothes pegs to stretch and secure the black material against the frame. This was no problem at all because the material was tight to get over the frame, but because the velvet is very thick, it’s pretty heavy and it did sag a little on the frame. I don’t consider this a negative and would rather have a thicker material rather than a thin one. So don’t be surprised if you need to stretch it and peg a little tighter. And finally the price, a very reasonable £89.00!
The Wexpro backgrounds come in Black & White and double-sided Chroma Key Green & Blue and the size and prices options are as follows:
2.4 x 2 metres with train £119.00
2.4 x 2 metres without train (the one I used) £89.00
2 x 1.5 metres £75.00
My sincere thanks to Jas Sagu, Levi Brady, Symren Samra and Amrit Sagu.
Jasdip Sagu: www.jasdipsagu.com
Amrit Sagu: firstname.lastname@example.org
Simren Samra: email@example.com.
Steve Aves: firstname.lastname@example.org