Creating Black Backgrounds for Macro Photography

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Sometimes I like to use a black background for macro photography to create a dramatic effect; I usually use a foam board with a high quality black matte print adhered to it. I don’t like reflective backgrounds for this type of work so I avoid glossy finishes whether they are printed or painted. I place my black print directly behind and very close to the flower. I always use a tripod in these situations so that I have a hand free for the reflector that I use to illuminate my subject from the front. I use a 12” reflector when working with a single flower as I don’t want too much light directed onto the black background.

Calla Lily – Spot Meter with Black Background

Next I set my camera to spot metering and adjust the exposure as needed for the tonality of the subject since I want to keep the background dark. For the Calla Lily image above I added 1/3 stop to the spot meter reading off the yellow flower and set that manually.

In Photoshop I use a Curves or an Exposure adjustment layer to darken the background. If you choose the latter you will see 3 sliders: Exposure, Offset, and Gamma Correction. If you move the Gamma Correction slider to the right it will darken your background and the subject. I usually move this slider only a little and use a Layer Mask to paint away the effect on the subject. You can make an Offset slider adjustment to darken only the dark tones. There are 0.0048 increments on this slider. This adjustment is often too much. To lessen the effect you need to type in a smaller value; I often go with -0.0024 units. Either way various images will be affected differently; making small adjustments is always best.

Another post processing tweak that I often add is a layer of the Google Nik Color Efex Pro Glamour Glow filter; it adds a lovely softness that I like for this type of photo. You can replicate this effect in Photoshop by duplicating the layer (Control or CMD J), going to Filter> Blur> Gaussian Blur at 25 pixels, and changing the Blend Mode to Soft Light.

Calla Lily – Processed using Google Nik Color Efex Pro Glamour Glow filter

The two Calla Lily images here—the one above and the one below– were both captured and processed using the techniques described above. Feel free to share your own tips for controlling the background for macro photography in the comments below.

About Author Denise Ippolito

Denise Ippolito is a full time award winning professional photographer, workshop leader, and artist living in New Jersey. Denise travels extensively presenting slide lectures and seminars and teaching photography and Photoshop. Her workshops feature a variety of subjects including: avian, flower, landscape and creative photography.
Denise’s love for nature started at an early age; she has always felt very passionate about wildlife. Knowing, that every living being, depends on the human race to conserve and preserve our natural environment. Through her photography she hopes to broaden awareness and inspire others to share her love for our planet and its resources.
In 2017 Denise’s image titled, Snow Globe was selected as the First Place "Winged Life" category winner for the BigPicture: Natural World Photography Competition. Her image of a Moseley's Rockhopper Penguin was selected as the "Birds" Category Winner in the prestigious Nature's Best 2016 Windland Smith Rice International Awards Competition. In 2015 she also won the Category for "Art in Nature" in the Nature's Best 2015 Windland Smith Rice International Awards Competition.
In 2010 and again in 2014, Denise received a Highly Honored award in the prestigious Windland Smith Rice Nature's Best competition. Also in 2014 one of her images was selected as part of the People's Choice Awards Top 50 Images in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. She has also won several PSA (Photographic Society of America) awards. Her images have been published in the Wall Street Journal, magazines and books, sold as greeting cards, calendars and featured in a Sierra Club Documentary. Most recently, Denise appeared in an episode of Xploration Awesome Planet for Fox 5 television.