Still Life with Black Backgrounds

dark style darktable

How can one produce a photo with an all black background

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Nikon D7200 Manual ISO100 f/2.8 50.00mm 1/8sec

When doing indoor shots of a still life subject, it can be a nice emphasis to make the background disappear to black. For this exercise we'll aim for a black and almost invisible background. While there are some camera settings to aim for, the majority of the blackening will be accomplished in post. If your subject is flat and you're shooting down to it, you'll want some black material/cloth to shoot onto. If your subject is a person or object that can be upright, we'll be shooting in the dark!

Lets start with the flat subject where we shoot down. Aim for some or all of these camera settings:

  • No auto Iso
  • No flash
  • Side lighting, perhaps filtered via umbrella
  • Macro ring lighting would work too
  • Shooting subject on black cloth/material
  • Suggest to have camera on tripod
  • Suggest to use live-view mode
  • Suggest to use wired remote shutter to reduce any shaking
  • When on a tripod, I always recommend turning off lens VR/OS/VC

Here we see the lighting, camera and subject setup. Then the camera shot and post-processed version.

I use Darktable for post-processing. Its been said it's got more features and ability than Lightroom but for zero cost. The caveat is that its only supported on Linux and Mac. There are an abundunt set of presets it ships with for post-processing tasks. You can also get some from Dtstyles.

Darktable Lighttable and Darkroom views. Two original photos on left, improved on right.

In Darktable there are two main modes: Lighttable and Darkroom. Light table mode shows you all your pictures in a grid (3x3, 2x2, whatever you want). It also may show your post-processed version of the same file in the grid. Double-click on a picture to edit it in Darkroom mode. Actually we are not editing the original camera pictures at all. Our post-processing steps taken are saved to sidecar files named with extension .xmp. Then we export the post-processed file to render it to a new jpg. Choices around size and quality and etc are made at the export step.

To achieve the black background, the key post-proc step in Darktable is to adjust the Base Curve. In Lightroom this may be called Tone Curve or just Curves.

Darktable Base Curve default, S-curved, blackened, presets and saved favorites.

Above we see the Darktable default base curve value which is just a linear line, not exactly a curve. By altering the base curve into an S shape (try other shapes too), we are altering the histogram to not show the 'grey' background features but instead move them into pure or almost pure black. Any dust specks you still see can be removed using the Spot Removal tool.

There are a wide assortment of post-proc actions one can perform for your photos. There is a way in the Lighttable to save them to a "style" file. These styles can be applied in batch mode when in Lighttable mode. Shift select multiple similar pictures then double-click the style of your choosing. I usually check the make copy check-box, so I can see the before and after in the lighttable view.

Here are tools I use in my "Alans Favs" style. I have acquired several styles for various foto types.

In a future blog post, I will do a similar style but with a portrait shot. We'll be shooting in a darkened room, using a slave flashed snoot, and adding a little bokeh to the background for style points.