Photography, Tutorials

My Way of Doing Black Backgrounds

The last few weeks I have done 3 posts with images of Lilies.  If you missed them then the first one was Death Flower, the second was Detail of Death, and the last one was Quick Sunday.  One of the most frequently asked questions I was asked, was how did I get the background so black?  I promised I would do a tutorial on it, and here it is.

I started with a image, a new one for this.

Here is the image as I first took it.  I am hoping you can see that the background is a motley colour.  I have canvas that I have stretched over frames and painted to use as backdrops,  This one was painted with yellow ochre and  either a dark brown or black.  Sorry, I did it quite a while ago and I don’t remember. I suspect I used raw umber, or maybe burnt Sienna.  I would have to go out to my studio and find out if you really want to know.  I am happy to do a tute sometime, if people want, on how to make your own backdrops.

Anyway back to the tutorial.

I have contacted Adobe about getting Photoshop Elements 10, I suspect they won’t, I thought it would be good to do the tutorials in it, so for now I will do them in Photoshop CS6.  So you open your image in your editor.

Once it is open you click on the curves and make the whole image dark so that the background is black.  It is almost black, so it shouldn’t take a lot to do it.  You can see on the image how far I brought the curves down to make the black.

Once you have done that do a “save as” and call it something different to the original image.  I called the original image lily-5769-1.jpg. and when I did the curves I saved the image as lily-5769-1-1.jpg, so I would have two images.

The next step was to open both images.

Both images are open.  To do what I do, it is best to decide what the smallest area will be that you will be eliminating, which is the lily in mine.  There is less area in the lily, so it is best to have the lighter image underneath and remove the dark lily on the top and leave the black background on the top image.

To put one image on top of the other you go to the image that will be on top, in this case the darker one, press Ctrl A, then Ctrl C (select all, then copy), go to the lighter image and click Ctrl V (paste), the darker image should now be sitting on top of the lighter one.

Next, you will need to add a Vector Mask, the mask you click on has the red square around down near the bottom on the right.  It will put the white square next the layer with the darker image.  You will need to click on the brush tool, which is over on the left. then right click in the image to bring up the box to change the size of the brush you want to use.  Make sure you have clicked on the mask so it is selected (when it is selected there will be a white border around it).  Now you start brushing on the lily to reveal the one from underneath.

I do all the edges first, I zoom in so I can see them easier.  I did have some trouble seeing this because it was so dark, so I turned the opacity down to 50% for that layer.  You can do that by going to the small window on the right that shows the layers, and just above the layer you will see opacity, you make sure the top layer is selected, it will be highlighted in some way, then you can change it.

If you hold down the Alt key and click on the mask in the layers window, the white square, you should be able to see what you have masked so far.  The black is what has been eliminated really.   I like to do this after I have done all the edges so I can see what I have missed and what I still have to do.  Once I am finished with it, then I simply do the same again, Alt and click on the mask in the layers window and it goes back to my image.

If you make any mistakes, remember you can click on the colour selector in the tool box on the left and change it so that the white is the foreground colour and simply remove your mistake.  I do this a lot.  I get carried away.  I really need to practice my colouring in skills.

There is the final image.  I have put the opacity back up, though I only did it to 91%, which is fine.  There is a lot more you can do to it from here, and I usually add some blur to the background, but for the sake of this tutorial,  I have decided to leave it here.  I want to do a lot more work on this image, but you will have to wait for more.

I know that there are many ways of doing this, and there are probably ways of doing it faster, but I love the colouring in, it makes me feel more artistic or something.  I have always enjoyed drawing, so I like that aspect of it.  I did try some other stuff, but I went back to doing it this way.  We all have to do what we are comfortable with.

Here is the final image, well the final for this tutorial.  I hope this has helped to show what I do.  Of course, the most logical thing would be to use a completely black backdrop.  I used to have some black velvet just for that, I probably still do, though I am not sure where.

I had also said I would show how I photograph them, now this next bit is a bit rough, I hope you can follow it.

LIke I said it is rough.  I love working like this.  I have a table set up between two windows, that is so I get a lot of back lighting.  I use the flash on my camera, but I set it so that it is -3 of it full range, then I set up a external flash, like the one you use on your camera, and I have the camera flash and the external flash set up so the camera will make the flash go off remotely.  Does that make any sense at all?

I used a telephoto lens, the 70mm to 300mm lens that I have.  The ISO was as low as it would go, and the aperture was set on f6. something, or there abouts, I’m not really good with the details, I just do it.  I know what I want to achieve, most of the time.  Of course, the camera was set up on a tripod and I was using a remote shutter release.

If you don’t have an external flash you could use a light that is like a spot light, say something like a desklamp, but you need to be aware that when you this you are likely to introduce a colour cast, like more yellow light, and you may need to change your white balance, or correct it with your editing software.  Then again, if you are planning to do them in black and white, then it doesn’t matter.

So there you have it, that is how I get my black backgrounds and I how I set up for still lifes.  I hope that answers the question for those that wanted to know.  Next week I will do a tutorial on how I did those sphere like images.


  1. It is interesting but I often take pictures of orchids. Most prefer to have black backgrounds, but I prefer to have the flowers in their natural settings.

    • The problem with the natural setting is that you can’t always control everything. At least doing a set up like this, means you are in control, or at least hope you are. Thanks Helen.

    • It wasn’t as much as you might think, I’ve got a lot better at it, and I do like that part, it is like colouring in as a child, quite relaxing. Thanks.

  2. I’m loving your series of tutorials by the way. Thats for posting! Now I just need to find the time to put them into practice.

  3. Great tut!It always fun to see how people copy layers onto another pic. I always drag and drop.

    Quite a stunning effect!

    • Thanks Curls, I like the ctrl c then ctrl v, very quick. I have got quite used to doing that now. Always new things to learn.

  4. hutchphotography2020 says

    Very helpful. I am always trying new ways to darken (and lighten) background images. Especially outside shots where the background varies i tones. Great job.

    • There are so many ways of doing things. you have to find one that you can remember, haha, and one that is easy for you to use. Thanks Hutch.

  5. I love the simplicity of the lily on black. I usually just make minor corrections in Lightroom, but I might have to download gimp to try some of these techniques :)

    • Yes, Heather give it a go. I don’t know how much editing you can actually do in Lightroom. Good luck, and thank you.

  6. Great tutorial, and now I must try your lighting technique. Backlight is so much more interesting than straight front light.

  7. Nice one! I usually play around with the blacks in LightRoom, with a little bit of spot correction using brushes.

    • There are always other ways of doing things, but we each have to do what works best for us. I love the effect of drawing, well it feels like that, or colouring in. Thanks Jawahar

  8. I’ve never used Photoshop but still this tutorial is so useful.

    Thanks for sharing it. :)

    • The tutorial should work in other things, most of the steps are pretty much the same. You could do this in GIMP and Photoshop Elements.
      Thank you Inge.

      • Thanks for your info, Leanne. :)
        I may will try in in GIMP though I’ve never used it either. :D

        Basically I only do standard editing on some of my photos so that’s why I only use Irfanview and Picassa recently. But obviously they both can’t do this such editing since they don’t support layer.

        Thanks very much, Leanne. Really appreciated! :)

  9. Tricia's Blogs says

    What a lot of work this tutorial was, thanks for your time and efforts. I have to say that I enjoy seeing your process even though I do not have those editing programs. And the result? WOW. :)

  10. Pingback: Things I learned this week « Peggy Isaacs

  11. Thanks for laying out how you shot that as well. That is really helpful to me right now. I think the rough drawing is great. I got it.

    • I am glad you like my rough drawing, interesting way to do it. That is me though. I hope you have some luck with it.

  12. makemeadiva says

    Thank you again for sharing. I have an image of a cockerel that I want to change the background on as it doesn’t work. I spent some time trying to figure it out and couldn’t. I’m going to give this a go in GIMP… I am finding fiddling with curves and stuff really relaxing :-)

    • I hope this tutorial helps you do that. GIMP is quite good, a great starting editing tool and of course, you can’t go past the price. Haha. I love fiddling with things too, I love being able to see what is possible, Good luck. :)

  13. *sigh* Lovely and much too advanced for me :-). I’m enjoying your site and the great shots!

    • This one is a little advanced, but I hope you have found the others easier to do Pamela. Thank you, it is always good to hear when people are enjoying the blog. :)

  14. Yet again … another instructive lesson. Regarding the reflections post you made since this one concerning backgrounds … I really liked the images just as they were (without the reflections) … especially the first one (HDR I assume). All of your stuff is really nice. I only wish I lived in Australia so I could get some one-on-one tutorials. I think the problem is that I don’t have Photoshop (I’m using GIMP) and find some of your methods difficult to follow. I’m even having trouble with layers in GIMP – it’s coming slowly however. Again … wonderful stuff … keep it up. D

    • We can organise a one on one if you like, I don’t know exactly how, but I thinking of setting up some stuff. Take a look at the Giving the Critical Eye at the top, maybe we can do something.
      GIMP is hard, so is Photoshop, I think when you start working with layers it is hard and can be hard to get your head around them.
      You were right both images in the reflections post were HDR’s. haha, am I becoming that predictable?
      thanks Pairodox.

  15. saysmandy says

    Thank you for this tutorial. It’s like you read my mind, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it and you post it for me. It looks much easier and more effective than the other tutorials I’ve found. Thank you sooooo much!!!

    • I must have been reading it Mandy, haha, I hope it helps and you manage to do it. If you have any trouble with it, please, please let me know. Thanks

  16. Leanne,
    Thanks for following me on my blog. That’s how I found your awesome site! This tutorial challenged me to create a black background. I used Adobe Photoshop Elements 6.0 to create mine (using the quick selection, inverse, new fill layer). Check it out on my blog (under the tab: ‘Uplifting Photographs by Vicki’).
    I’m now hooked on your tutorials!

    • There are so many ways of doing them, I like how I do them, I feel more in control, but I can your way is quick, though I’m not a huge fan of quick selection for this, I find bits are left out or added and then the edges are too sharp, but as I said everyone has to find their own way, mine is only one. I did take a look, it looks good.
      Thanks Vicki.

  17. Hi, I’m loving this tutorial, followed the steps but I got lost when you mentioned about vector mask. I tried to look at other pages explaining the vector mask but couldn’t get better understanding. But when I use regular mask it seems to work but here you mentioned about using vector which I want to try. Do you think it’s possible to put up a video tutorial on this? I happen to understand better visually. Thanks!

Comments are closed.