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

Daffodils on Black

From “Visual Mass, or Pull” in Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom by David duChemin:

“Take a look at a handful of your favorite photographs and become aware of the path your eye takes. Generally it will begin at one point and follow the same path around the image before returning to the starting point. That is the hierarchy of visual mass in your image….

“Notice how your eye doesn’t do much more than give passing notice to the background. It does this because it takes only a glimpse to perceive that the background holds nothing of interest.

“Your eye will tell you naturally how the areas of pull, or mass, are distributed in your image. Now the point to all this: is this the way you want people to look at your image? If my eye goes to a bright triangle of light in the lower-right corner and kind of gets stuck there, is that where you want my eye to go? No? Then you need to do one of three things — exclude that white corner with a crop, diminish the pull of that white corner with a vignette, or provide me with an area of greater visual mass to pull my eye from that spot….”

From “Flowers on Black” in Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips and Techniques by Harold Davis:

“A white background allows you to show off the delicacy and transparency of your flower subjects…. A black background is also great for flower photographs and it is perhaps the most dramatic setting for floral imagery. On black, you can still photograph with the aim of displaying delicacy; yet it also provides opportunity to bring out the drama in flower coloration.

“When photographing flowers on a white background, I normally overexpose and aim for a rightward-biased histogram. The opposite is true when I photograph flowers on black: I underexpose and aim for left-biased histograms. Some underexposure deepens the black background and adds to the saturation of colors in the flowers.


For this post, I selected fifteen suitable candidates from my previous four daffodil posts (see The Daffodils are Here! (1 of 4); The Daffodils are Here! (2 of 4); The Daffodils are Here! (3 of 4), and The Daffodils are Here! (4 of 4))… and converted the image backgrounds to black.

As the first quotation above explains, we often discount the content of a photo’s background when looking at it — giving it attention, perhaps, only if the background creates additional context for the photo or adds compelling shapes or color elements. A photo of a flower singled out from other flowers or plants in the background is perceived differently from, say, a photo of a flower in front of stone or concrete structures, where the stone provides color and texture that contrasts with the typical delicacy of the flower blooms. My third post in this year’s daffodil series (The Daffodils are Here! (3 of 4)) shows some examples: in the first gallery on that post, I positioned the camera intentionally to include parts of the nearby statues (partially out of focus) to create such a contrast, whereas most of the other photos feature only foliage in the background — and in those images the background provides mainly a perception of color (green!), with the background forms providing some shapely uniformity that is largely irrelevant.

Still, I often reconstruct parts of a photo’s background in Lightroom, using spot removal or healing brushes to replace distractions — especially since, when photographing outdoors, I have little control over light and some excessive highlights will often break through the darker areas, appearing as bright blobs that our eyes might latch on to. Since patterns of color and shape often repeat in nature photographs, it’s fairly straightforward to remove a distracting blob by replacing it with a leaf, or even eliminate larger objects (sticks, for example) that have captured too much light by replacing them with a batch of leaves, grass, or other elements so that the background ends out more consistent in appearance. I’ll also typically mask the entire background behind the photo’s main subject and add the appearance of additional bokeh by reducing noise and decreasing texture and sharpness, to give the background a smoother, softer appearance and further differentiate it from the subject.

With black backgrounds, of course, I don’t need to do any of that, for the obvious reason that nothing in the background will show through anyway. I still make decisions about what elements of the subject to include in the photo: in some of the photos below, I’ve kept stems or leaves, in others I’ve left them out. That depends on how much of the subject and immediate surroundings are in focus — like in the first yellow daffodil below — since the black mask will cause anything that’s blurry or out of focus to be more obviously so. So, for example, if in that same first photo the stem was blurrier, I would likely have excluded it from the final version of the image, or made it so dark that it appeared to fade to black.

How much of a photo is in sharp focus also helps me determine whether or not it’s suitable for this black background treatment: if individual blooms in the white daffodil clusters below were out of focus, I would typically decide such photos were unsuitable for this treatment. And since I’ve previously used masking to defocus the background of the original photo, it’s simple to flip the background I’ve already masked to black and check to see if the subject — especially around its edges — is adequately in-focus to look right as it contrasts strongly on pure black.

In the second quotation above, Harold Davis describes how you can use underexposure to create more saturated colors. This is very true, and works especially well for colors like yellow, orange, white, or green, where even slight underexposure deepens the colors and captures more texture in the shadows. It’s less effective with colors that are already highly saturated — like reds or purples — which will often need some saturation reduction in Lightroom to keep them from offending your eyeballs. I almost always use exposure bracketing so that the camera creates three images from each scene: one at my chosen exposure, one overexposed, and one underexposed, so that I can then choose the one with the level of color saturation (and focus) that I like the best. With flower photography, the underexposed photo is almost always the version I’ll end out using, whether I’m keeping the background intact or removing it entirely.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Leave a reply ...