Exposing correctly but having black backgrounds


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Feb 4, 2011
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Cork Ireland
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Hi All,

I have seen a few shots like this, often with birds, but this link is a good example (link posted as it's not my shot).

Harvest mouse.jpg

Could anyone briefly explain how a shot like this is achieved, (the lighting required etc, or is it photoshopped)

thank you.
Flash with small aperture (F8 or higher depending on ambient light of course). I did it at our bird feeder testing my triggers with ocf. See thread below...

Bird studio | Photography Forum
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Thanks goooner
I want to say the photo post was using two flashes, one above and one behind. He posted another shot of a different mouse on the exact same wheat stalk in natural light and it looks much different.

You can do it with natural light too, just make sure you've got about a 4 stop (or so) difference in the light on the subject and the background.


Gray Catbird
by The Braineack, on Flickr

bird was in dappled light and I used spot metering to just get the exposure in sunlight, so the background is pretty dark since it wasn't in any sun.
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As indicated, it's simply a matter of ensuring that there's a difference in exposure between subject and background. It can be done with ambient light (under the right circumstances), but is much easier with strobed light. Meter the ambient/background and stop down so that you have a totally black (or as near as desired) background and note the difference between that and your initial metering. Set your flash to manual and add as much light as necessary to get back to your ambient reading (approximately). In other words:
You meter the ambient/background at ISO 200, 1/200, f5.6 You stop down to get a totally black background, that turns out to be ISO 200, 1/200, f11, or 2 stops below ambient. Set your flash so that the exposure on the subject is [approximately] f5.6. You can use TTL for this, but generally you'll need a background which is well past the flashes limit.
I think the others covered it, but just to add to it, the key is having your subject be significantly brighter than your background. So this means having a bright/powerful light, and/or getting the light close to your subject.

Of course, you want to make sure that your light isn't also lighting up the background, so having both the subject (and thus the light) further away from the background will help.

So if you put those two things together, subject far from the background and light close to subject), it's much easier to get a dark/black background.
Having your subject a good distance away from the background material is going to be of great assistance in achieving this effect.
Thanks all for the help
Interesting that the OP photo link shows 'flash did not fire' where the one Braineack mentions shows flash. Harvest Mouse
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This is what threw me before I asked question, which is why I mentioned was it photoshopped, but if you use a trigger to remotely fire a flash maybe the exif shows it as no flash fired? I'm not to sure
depends on triggers. if the manual trigger doesn't pass ttl info, then it won't say fired.

if you look above, you can see the catchlight what appears to be the on-camera flash in the mouse's eye. You don't see that bright spec on the other shot.

camera settings between the two shots of differ by only a stop in ISO, that also makes me think this was a staged shot and he dropped the black backdrop in there when he setup his flashes. 15 minutes in between both these shots.
From the catch light in both mouse photos, it does not seems to have a artificial light above the mouse (unless it photoshop it).
we know the shots was done within fifteen minutes of each other, in the same exact location, but the eye in the mouse with the black background is glowing compared to the other. And there's a bit of a catch on the very uppermost edge of it where it's the brightest. Plus the fur on the mouse is now heavily backlit creating that halo effect.

I think they used a light source above and slightly behind the mouse to light it up. You can see the tops of the wheat are completely blown out now from the extra light (despite being shot 1 stop faster). And there's definitely more light to the front of the mouse than the rear.

It's possible it wasn't even a flash but some LED flashlight of sorts, the color of the light has a very artificial feel to it.

There's no way that shot wasn't done with supplemental lighting.
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One light from low and behind the wheat stalk perch for the mouse, one light from above.

Back in the early days of digital SLRs/digicams like the Nikon CoolPix 950, this type of dark backdrop lighting was often done with two large black-painted foam core boards placed 5 to 6 feet behind a hummingbird feeder, and then two, three, or even four speedlights set to very low, fractional power (1/16 to 1/32 power or so, quite often) but with the flash heads zoomed to a tele length (85mm to 105mm typically) to get high guide number, and then when a hummingbird approached the feeder, the user could snap their image with an ultra-short duration flash pop.

This was, at one time, a super-popular hobbyist past time, shooting hummingbirds at feeders using black foamcore boards, and multiple flashes, usually with a digicam, because d-slrs were still super-expensive. There used to be threads on dPreview, filled with shots done this way. It became a huge "thing" for about a year or so, then kind of disappeared.

The serious practitioners found that the black foam core board made the easiest, best,most-reliable backgrounds, since so much hummingbird activity is in the brightest months of the year, it's hard to always be able to create enough of a delta between the flash level and the ambient light's level.

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