"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Cherry Blossoms on Black

Cherry Blossoms on Black

From “White, Black, and Gray” in The Art of the Photograph by Art Wolfe and Rob Sheppard:

“White, black, and gray are neutral colors, meaning that they do not have a color! Okay, that’s silly, we know, but truthfully, these colors do not have hues of red, blue, yellow, and so on, and a hue is color. Some people define a neutral color as one that does not attract attention to itself, which isn’t a bad way to look at them. They tend to be colors that sit peacefully in a photograph without competing with other colors. Though an important aside is that spots of white anywhere in a photograph will often attract attention away from your subject….

“However you want to define neutral colors, they are important in photography because of their influence, which can be huge, on other colors. If you have a very colorful subject and put it against a black background or a white background, the color will look different. Color against black will tend to look richer and stronger…. Black will make even solid colors look like they are glowing. It is a dramatic way to use color. Color against white will tend to be less vibrant and more solid looking, such as the translucent fall leaves against a harsh overcast sky…. White can make pastel colors look even more pastel. White also gives a very elegant look to colors and is not as obviously dramatic as black.”

From “Making Pictures” in Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe:

“[With] digital photography, it’s pretty easy, and pretty cheap, to make pictures. Making a digital snapshot can hardly be compared to drawing something painstakingly from life. But drawing and amateur photography do have this in common: making pictures… is a way of paying attention to what you are depicting. And so, it is a way of seeing. It is a special way of attending to what you see, just as dancing can be a special way of paying attention to the music you hear. Pictures are bound up with seeing, but not only with seeing; they are bound up also with thinking about what we see, and with the interest we take in what we see….”


For this post, I took a few of the photos from the previous two posts (see Found Blooms! (1 of 2) and Found Blooms! (2 of 2)) and processed them on black backgrounds. As I briefly mentioned previously (see Autumn Daisies (1 of 3)), I’ve been using Lightroom’s reimagined masking to create these black-background images. Lightroom’s ability to select backgrounds, subjects, and individual objects from the photo simplifies the process of converting them to black quite a bit, especially if the subject is clearly focused, well-colored, and distinct from the background. While it doesn’t completely eliminate the brushing needed to fine-tune the appearance of edge details, it does reduce it enough to move the process a long at a faster clip than in the olden days of earlier last year.

Software tools are at their best for us, though, if they prompt us to think differently about what we’re doing. With brushing reduced and the ability to select objects from the photo (to do so, you roughly scribble on the object with the mouse and let Lightroom create a mask for it), I end out re-thinking the content I want to include in the final image. The first photo below is a good example, where I selected the two leaves as objects, then the flower, then all of the remaining stems — then inverted them all so the background is masked instead of the plant. From there, it’s just a matter of reducing exposure, whites, and shadows to their darkest values and — tada! — the background is now black. With brushing, the most difficult section of this photo would have been the thin leaf and flower stems; with object selection, these elements are chosen by Lightroom with great accuracy and need only minimal cleanup with a brush to keep their detail intact.

As you might gather from the first quote above, I’ve been puzzling about whether or not to try some of these images on white backgrounds instead of black. The process would nearly be the same; yet when I experiment with it, I don’t like the results as much — though I’m beginning to see how some photos (with lighter colored subjects, more translucent subjects, or maybe those that are backlit) might work on white.

As the quote suggests, white shows through elements of the subjects more starkly and becomes distracting; and parts of the image that are farther from the camera (and therefore are darker or less in focus) that tend to fade out and blend with the black become more prominent, effectively flattening the appearance of the image and making it look like a cutout since much of what we perceive as contrast and depth is lost. On the very last pair of images below, I show the white background paired with an alternative: softening the image overall (using Nik Color Efex Pro) to reduce contrast between the flowers and leaves and the background, and adding a bit color behind the subject to make it slightly off-white instead of pure white. This seems to work better, in my opinion… and is a little easier on the eyes!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


    1. Dale

      Hi… and thanks! Yes, I feel the same — even though I don’t mind the lighter colored backgrounds, they seem to add something artificial to the image that the black background doesn’t. I suppose that’s partly because our eyes tend to focus on a subject anyway, and with the black backgrounds, they don’t have to take in anything else!

      Thanks for commenting!

  1. These are all lovely, including the ones with a white or pale pink/peach background, which gives more of an old-fashioned feel to it. (How do you color-coordinate when you add the tint? Just try different tints until it looks harmonious?)
    The white background is nice and…light, I guess, don’t know how else to say it, but you’re right, it’s a bit harder on the eyes.

    1. Dale

      Thank you!

      Yes, the color coordination comes from some Nik Collection effects that simulate faded film photos, and you can just play around with the settings until you get a color and saturation you like.

      The background color is a bit of an illusion: the color has actually been applied to the whole image, but since the flowers are pinkish, that’s not so obvious. Since the background was originally white, I get off-white tints like peach or pink. If I do the same thing with a black-background photo, the colors tend to me more saturated like purple, yellow, or green. In either case, you can also pick out parts of the subject and remove the tint — but it’s sometimes hard to isolate those parts without inadvertently removing some of the background color, which ends out looking splotchy when the image is exported from Lightroom.

      Thanks for the comment!

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