Have you always wondered how those photographs with a black background are made, also known as blackphotos? Is it photoshop? Is it magic? Or does it have to do with the surroundings? Do you need studio flashes? In this blogpost I will answer those questions! Spoiler alert, you don’t need to be called Harry Potter or be the owner of a full studioflashset to make these kind of pictures ;).
The first time I met the phenomenon of ‘black photo’ I remember well. I had been photographing for a while but then I started with horse reportages on commission. My client, a photographer herself, asked me to take black photos of her horse and walked to the stable, put her horse in the doorway and told me to go do the session. At home, I naturally went into research and found a number of photographers who offered this kind of photos. Fast forward to years later and this technique is more popular than ever!
Now you might think: “But what is a black picture then ?!”, I understand that question! This term is now well known and established among the horse photographers, but this term does not really exist outside of this photographic niche. A black photo is a photo where you take a photo of your subject with a black background. Often the subject is – how could it be otherwise within this branch of sport – a horse.
I still regularly make photos with a black background and I always get the question how to do that. Reason enough to write something about it!
surroundings, surroundings, surroundings!
The most, most important thing for making a successful black picture is the surroundings. This makes or breaks the ability to take a good black picture. You need a dark background while there is enough light on the horse*. Think of an opening of a barn, a stable, a trailer or even a dark forest. You can also hang a black cloth. With a little creativity, there are opportunities to be found at most locations. What matters is that there is enough contrast between the horse in the foreground and the background itself.
If you photograph in the opening of a barn, stable or trailer, it is useful to first take a look at the surroundings behind the horse. It sometimes happens that there are shiny objects such as bridles that you can easily remove from the wall. This would just be very important during post-processing.
Another thing that might matter a lot in post-processing: we try to get the contrast between the horse* and the environment as high as possible. The horse* is therefore in the light and the background is as dark as possible. In barn buildings, sheds etc.. you often have lights on, put these off (when possible) while making the black photos. Also try to close windows (temporarily) so that no light passes through them. Can’t close the window? Then you can often hang a towel or blanket over the window.
Then a piece of background. Your camera has a certain dynamic range. This is able to capture a nice palette of tones, but if you go photographing in challenging conditions (such as a black horse in the snow) it is possible that your camera can not capture all details in both white and black. This is what you try to use as an advantage when making black photos. You try to ensure that the darks in the black of the photo no longer contain any details. If you look at the histogram of a well-made black photo you can see a peak on the left side. Want to read more about reading a histogram? Then view this blogpost of my “con-colleague’s of Digital Photography School.
Posture of the horse
It is easy to forget the posture of the horse because as a photographer you are also busy with other things. A tip for this is to first arrange all your settings before you start shooting so that you do not have to think about that when you take the photos. You then have all the time and rest to make sure that the horse is looking his best on and guide the owner during the session. Watch your settings from time to time to see if they are still correct. You schould take your time for this.
Often it is nice to make sure that the neck of the horse is slightly bent and stretched out. There are some tricks to get this done. These tricks range from holding up some food, using something scary things like a reflection screen or to jumping in front of the horse. When photographing, make sure that the ears are facing forward.
If you put the whole body of the horse on the picture, look at the legs. It is often nice to leave the horse (almost) square. Make sure the horse does not lean too much towards one side, you will see on the photo that the horse is not completely upright.
*Instead of horse you can also read dog, person, product or whatever you want to photograph with a black background.
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