Black & White Backlight
A technique for the Black & White Photo Project
Photography by Claire Gillo
With the Black & White Photo Project deadline rapidly approaching it’s good to revisit genre specific skills and take a look at some interesting techniques to complement your style.
In this post, Digital Camera magazine’s Claire Gillo takes a look at backlighting.
Light your object from behind to create a magical halo effect
Backlighting looks extremely effective when shot in the monochrome medium. By lighting your subject from behind, you capture a silhouetted object with a halo outline. Once you remove the colour from the image, the silhouette and halo effect is enhanced even further.
For this tutorial we used an external flashgun and picked a wild flower from a hedge. We also had a reflector to hand to bounce some light back into the top part of the subject. You may also need to do this depending on the size of your subject. We also placed our flashgun onto a pile of books to bring the light closer to the flower.
There are many different techniques you can use when backlighting a subject. In our example we’ve kept it simple, but if you want to add in an extra touch, you can also try spraying some water onto the subject. If you use a fine-mist spray bottle, the small droplets will ping out against the dark background. If you try this technique, just make sure you keep wiping your flashlight with a towel because after a few sprays it may get a little damp!
Pick the right subject
You want to pick an object that will silhouette while describing an interesting outline. Flowers are good for this technique, but you want to avoid the usual pretty full-faced type. Seed heads or weed-like species work best, and anything with spikes or hairs that are going to catch the light are preferable. Put it in a vase so it stands upright, and place it on a flat surface. We secured our flower in place using some Blu Tack and a vase.
Set up the background
Set up a dark background behind your subject. We used a thick brown blanket. As long as the background is dark in appearance, it doesn’t matter if it’s not black because we can easily fix this in processing later. It’s best to use a thick material like velvet that will absorb the light rather than a shiny surface that will reflect the light. If necessary, angle the background to eliminate any stray light reflections.
Set up the camera
Next set the mode dial on your camera to manual so you are in complete control of the exposure. Set the shutter speed to 1/250 sec because this synchronises with the flash light. Also, set the ISO low to 100 for optimum noise-free results. Now we can balance the aperture setting with the flash. In this example we set the aperture to f/16 to keep the subject completely sharp from back to front.
Set up the flash camera settings
We want the background to be under-exposed. And we’re going to use the camera’s built-in pop-up flash to trigger the external flashgun. Under the Built-in flash setting, set the flash to the wireless function so that the external flashgun and the camera are communicating. Set the pop-up flash to fire so it doesn’t have any impact on the final result. We’re only using it to fire the external flash, not to light the subject from the front.
Set up the flashgun
Set the flash unit to the Slave setting and put it into manual mode. We can also control the intensity of the flash through the built-in flash feature on the camera. We set ours to fire at 1/16th of its full power. The setting you need will vary depending on the power of your flashgun, and its distance to the subject. Angle the flash head up and place it behind your subject, like in the picture above. Finally, we’re ready to start shooting!
We had to use a reflector to bounce the light back into the top part of the flower. Without the reflector, we found the top part of the subject was under-exposed. If you struggle to hold the reflector and take the shot at the same time, get an assistant to help you, or mount your camera on a tripod. When you take the shot, make sure the main focus point is sharp on the centre of the flower. Check the exposure using your camera’s histogram.
Convert to black and white
Open the image in Adobe Camera Raw by double clicking its thumbnail in Bridge. In Camera Raw, convert the image to black and white using the Convert to Grayscale setting. Our flower has some green parts, so we can use the green channel to boost the outline. In the Basic panel we want to enhance the Blacks and boost the Contrast. Once you’re happy, click Open Image to bring it into the main image editor.
Dodge the top of the flower
Although we used the reflector to enhance the light at the top of the subject, we’re going to do a bit of dodging and burning to help enhance the end result. Duplicate the background layer, select the Dodge tool and set the Range to Highlights and the Exposure at 10%. Run a small brush around the top of the flower, building up the effect slowly. Now go to the Burn tool and set the Range to Shadows. Paint in the centre to darken the silhouette.