Lighting backdrops in reverse

Late in 2013 at The Melbourne Camera Club I did a session on lighting backdrops. The final images are not particularly exciting (I was lighting a mannequin head) but you may find the technique and outcome to be weird and interesting.

these backdrops are not what they seem…

One of these photos was shot using a white paper background and the other was shot using a black paper background. The weird thing? The shot at left used the white backdrop and the shot at right used the black paper.


It’s pretty simple actually: anything underexposed will go dark and anything overexposed will go bright.

So for the white backdrop, we moved a light in close to the subject and tried not to point it at the backdrop. Because the light was so much closer to the subject than the backdrop, there was a huge brightness difference between the two. All I had to do was expose correctly for the foreground knowing that the backdrop would be so much darker that it would appear black. If you want the technical term, this is working the inverse square law.

against the white backdrop: light very close to subject

For the black backdrop, it’s the opposite: I want it to be way, way brighter than my foreground. I had two strobes left and right behind the subject blasting away at full power. I needed a lot of power because black tends to absorb light. I dialed in a camera exposure that caused the lit black background to appear overexposed. I then added a little light to the subject to match the camera exposure.

shooting against the black backdrop – lights are at left and right aimed at backdrop to cause it to overexpose

Of course, it’s a lot easier in both cases to simply use a black or white background in the normal way. If that’s not available to you, knowing the basic idea of how to do this could be useful.

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