“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” – Leonardo da Vinci
When I started to make portraits, I was inspired by Richard Avedon to start with a white background/canvas to make images. Now, I’m trying to do the opposite– start with a black canvas, and add my subject in afterwards.
What is the nature of things?
I don’t study physics, but it makes sense that all things are in nature dark, unless exposed by light. So philosophically, it makes sense to start with the darkness, and add the light afterwards.
A black canvas
I like the idea of starting with a black canvas. With the ultimate minimalist background, and adding your subject in afterwards. The background is no distraction. There is only focus on your subject.
What makes a perfect photo?
First of all, I like the idea of perfection as being something like:
Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away.
It is based off a quote from Leonardo da Vinci — who said that the great poems are the ones where you cannot add anything more to it; nor can you remove anything from it.
I feel the same is with a great photograph. How much can you subtract from the frame or the image, until there is nothing left to take away? When you are left with the true essence of the image– and the soul of the image?
Why I like monochrome
I also find great inspiration from the ancient Zen artists– many of whom just used blank ink. My grandfather was a celebrated calligraphy artist, and his only color was black. I also like the minimalist landscape Eastern-style paintings, which are only a white background, and black ink. These images are focused more about emotion, mood, and soul– rather than literal depiction.
Let’s inverse things. Start with a black background, and add the white.
How can we do this?
1. Use a flash
Simple way to create a black background: use a flash. I use the Ricoh GR II in ‘P’ (program) mode, and use the built-in flash. If you shoot indoors with a flash, usually the ambient background is dark, so when you use a flash, the background will go pitch black. You can just experiment with using the flash.
2. Minus exposure-compensation
Another tip: put your subject in the bright sunlight, and use -1 or -2 (or sometimes -3) exposure-compensation to make your background pitch black. Then your subject will be well-exposed in the highlights.
3. Shoot high-contrast black and white preview
The easiest way to visualize the world in black and white is to shoot in high-contrast black and white preview mode. Many cameras have this option, especially if you shoot JPEG+RAW, or if you just set your camera to shoot monochrome.
The benefit of using high-contrast black and white is that you can better see the highlights and the shadows.
4. Use a high-contrast black and white preset
I shoot the Ricoh GR II in high contrast black and white, but I shoot in RAW. When I import my photos into Lightroom, I apply my free Eric Kim Lightroom Preset (Eric Kim Monochrome 1600). The preset is set in a way which the ‘black’ slider is dragged -100, and contrast is +100. This ‘crushes the blacks’ — which means, there is no longer any shadows in the dark parts of the frame.
A lot of photographers dislike this. They prefer having detail in the shadows. I like having ‘crushed blacks’ — pitch black, sublime backgrounds, with no light. I think it is just a difference of aesthetic taste. Choose your own taste.
5. Start with a black wall
A simpler tip: start with a black wall, or a dark-colored wall. Then try to photograph light-colored subjects or subjects with light clothing against the dark wall.
6. Darken/burn your photos in post-processing
You can also artificially make a black background by ‘burning’ or darkening the background of your frame in post-processing (Lightroom you can use the ‘Adjustment Brush’, hotkey “K”, after going to the Develop module).
Some photographers also like to apply a vignette in the background to darken the background. Just use whatever technique which makes you have the type of black background or image that you like.
Personally, I no longer like to use a heavy vignette in my photos; because the photos often look too ‘fake.’ I prefer manually darkening the photos in Lightroom, by using the adjustment brush and lowering the exposure to the maximum minus.
So if you have distracting elements in the background, darken them.
But isn’t this ‘cheating?’ For me, I see photography more like painting with a camera. And film photographers have burned or darkened parts of their frame forever in the darkroom. So I think it is fair game. The only thing I personally don’t do in my photography is clone things out– but I don’t mind burning them away completely.
7. Shoot at night
Photograph your subject at night, against a bright light source. The light source can be a jukebox, a lamp post, or even the flashlight of your smartphone.
Monochrome might be for you; or might not be for you. Follow your own taste and aesthetics.
Personally, I prefer ‘all black everything.’ All black clothes, all black devices/cameras, black backpack, and of course– black coffee.
Monochrome isn’t better nor worse than color. It is just different.
For me, I prefer the longevity of black and white — my printed photos will exist longer without the fading colors of time. I started off shooting monochrome, and that is where my heart is (for now). I love the nostalgic feeling of monochrome, and how it simplifies photography and life.
Black is bliss.