Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Achieving a perfect black background in miniature photography

To take a photo of your miniature against a perfectly black backdrop is actually very easy to do when you understand the fundamentals of photography. Now I am not going to go over the basics again so if you have missed out, please check out my post on the exposure triangle. What I am about to show you is what works for me and is by no means to only way to achieve a perfectly black background for photos of your miniatures. By all means use my method as a basis or foundation to tinker around with and hopefully find a technique that works best for you. Now on with my tutorial.

Nocturna Models Le Petit Chaperon against a perfect black background

First off, the following are some steps which I DO NOT use to achieve that perfect black background and the reasons why I do not use them:

1) I do not use any photo editing software. While I am not adverse to using photo editing on occasion, I believe that by forcing yourself to take photos that look good in a WYSIWYG fashion will in the long run make you a better photographer. You are essentially forced to better understand how your camera works as opposed to understanding how to use a photo editing software.

2) I do not use a camera flash. Now some photographers suggest using a flash which subjects the object being photographed to an intense light exposure which also has an added effect of darkening the background, sometimes to become perfectly black. Personally, I never use a camera flash when taking photos of my miniatures because I find the light source from a camera flash to be too 'harsh'.

3) I do not use a black cloth as the backdrop. There are many suggestions out there in the world wide web which suggests varying cloth materials that are black in colour to achieve a perfect black background. In my experience, cloth tends to reflect some amount of light resulting in a more grey rather than black background. That's good if it's the effect you are seeking but not so if you want the blackest of blacks as your background. 

Setup showing lamp, miniature and LCD screen

So with all the no-no's I have listed above, what then is the technique I use to achieve a perfect black background? I placed the miniature in between a diffused light source and a relatively shadowed background which for me was an TV LCD screen located a fair distance away from the miniature. The photo above shows you the setup comprising the lamp in the foreground, the miniature and the LCD screen in the background while the diagram below shows the relative distance between all three. Do note that the distances mentioned here are not hard and fast numbers but a rough suggestion.

Rough diagram of the relative positioning of the lamp, miniature and LCD screen

The key is to understanding the technique above is the nature of light exposure and sensitivity towards the camera sensor which in my case is a Canon EOS 650D - an entry-level DSLR camera. To get your head around why I did what I did, keep in mind these three simple tips:

1) Make use of exposure: A camera can only record a limited range of light or in technical terms - exposure or a measure of how much light the camera's image sensor is exposed to during a shot. Start with the light falling on your miniature, and then think about the comparative amount of light on the background. If there’s a big difference, for example a shadowed area, there may not be enough light reflected back into the camera to register anything on the sensor resulting in a black background.

2) Make use of backdrops: For my purposes, I found the LCD screen on my HD TV to be the perfect backdrop. When aligned correctly (see diagram below) and located at a fair distance away from the miniature I was photographing (see tip three below) it provided me with a shadowed background that would scarcely register on my camera sensor. In this case, using black cloth could be a substitute backdrop but the main issue is to created a shadowed background with the dark backdrop located some distance from the miniature. 

3) Subject-to-background distance: By increasing the distance between your miniature and the shadowed background, you are increasing the likelihood of the background going completely black. 

Light is directed at an angle to the LCD screen to minimise light reflections from the lamp

I hope that you found this post useful and please do share if you have a technique of your own that gives you that perfect black background. Thanks for reading and have a nice hobby week!


  1. Good stuff! I've also just learned that flash is an overkill when taking close ups.

    1. Thanks! :) Yep ... flash really messes up your macro shots especially when you are dealing with miniatures.


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