Photography Tips for Using Flash on a Black Background

Shooting portraits against a black background makes a dramatic statement. It forces the viewer to give the subject their undivided attention, and it can give off a wide range of emotions. However, it also presents lighting challenges for photographers. In this video, photographer Joe McNally demonstrates a simple approach to these challenges:

To illustrate the difficulty in photographing on a black background, McNally first shoots an image with the on-camera flash. The result is harsh, heavy on contrast, and unflattering:

flash black background

on-camera flash

To soften the light, McNally uses the on-camera flash to trigger a remote Speedlight, which is then aimed at the subject through a diffuser, resulting in a natural-looking light with soft shadows:

flash black background

diffused, off-camera Speedlight

For yet another look, try a large diffuser panel (McNally uses one that measures 3 feet by 6 feet). Those who don’t want to buy or rent one can create a makeshift panel from a bedsheet. Diffusing the light over such a large area will create a soft, allover glow on your subject:

flash black background

large diffuser panel

Depending on the mood you’re trying to capture, any of these lighting setups could be the right one for you. But as always, it pays to familiarize yourself with a variety of approaches.

“Be observant of light—observant of natural light; be aware of what your flashes can and cannot do for you; and the mix of those two potential approaches (available, flash, or flash mixed with available) make you a very versatile photographer.” – Joe McNally

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