SHOOTING EXTREMES

BLACK-ON-BLACK
WHITE-ON-WHITE


by Florence W Deems

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What do we mean by Extremes? Scenes and objects that are way less than 18% gray or way more than this middle tone that all camera light meters are programed to produce from reading the amount of light in any situation. As in the subtitle above, these scenes can be black or very very dark objects against a black or very very dark background. Or a white or nearly white object on a white background. Or clear glass or shiny metal objects on either black or white backgrounds.

When a scene is mostly dark, like a dark background, night scenes and dark room scenes, our cameras' light meters can be fooled into turning the blacks or other dark areas into gray - specifically what is termed 18% gray. Back in the days of film shooting, this was a major problem, because there was no instant feedback, as we have today with digital cameras. Today, we don't have to wait for our film to be developed to see whether our camera had rendered the scene correctly. Today, all we have to do is look at the viewscreen on the back of our digital camera.

So try shooting a mostly dark or black scene and then see what the result is. Did the camera make the scene look gray? If so, then you'll need to know how to change the settings - aperture, shutter speed, and perhaps ISO - so that the camera will render the black/dark as black/dark instead of gray. What you want to do is the REDUCE the amount of light hitting the sensor. If you do not know how to change your camera's settings, then consult the manual - that's why you have it!

The exact opposite would be when a scene is mostly white, like a white background, snow scenes and beach scenes, our cameras' light meters can be fooled into turning the whites or other bright light areas into gray - yes, that same old 18% gray! Today, when we're shooting digitally, all we have to do is look at the viewscreen on the back of our digital camera to determine how our sensors will treat these bright or white scenes.

So try shooting a mostly bright or white scene and then see what the result is. Did the camera make the scene look dull and gray? If so, then you'll need to know how to change the settings - aperture, shutter speed, and perhaps ISO - so that the camera will render the white/bright as white/bright instead of gray. What you need to do in this case is to INCREASE the amount of light hitting the sensor. If you do not know how to change your camera's settings, then consult the manual - that's why you have it!

What you need to do is to permit LESS light onto the sensor for the black-on-black scene, but MORE light for the white-on-white scene. So take your camera off of the automatic shooting mode and put it on Aperture Priority. Choose an f/stop (aperture) of f/8, f/11, or f/16, and let the camera choose the shutter speed. Take another shot. If it comes out gray, then you'll need to change the shutter speed also. (* To refresh your memory about the Relationship of Apertures & Shutter Speeds, please click on this link.)

There's another, probably easier way to get less or more light onto the sensor. Most cameras have an exposure compensation tool, or EV (exposure valuation). With some cameras this is a button that shows a plus/minus sign. For more light, go the plus direction; for less light go the minus direction. Again, you will have to consult your camera's manual to find out how to do this.

But there is an additional problem when shooting extremes of black subjects against a black background or white subjects against a white background. It's a visual problem - the way our brains translate what our eyes are looking at. If the black background turns out to look lighter than the black object we're shooting, then our brains will translate this as a black object against a gray background. Even when we KNOW that we started with a black background! Conversely, if the white background turns out to be light gray and looks darker than the white object, then our brains will insist that this is a white object against a gray background - and we KNOW we started with a white background! See some examples below. Click on the images to see a larger size.

In the image above, part of the background shows as black, but the part on the right shows as gray. If we cut this image vertically, so that we see only the left side, then our brains will tell us that this is a black object against a black background. But if we look at the right side only, then our brains say this is a black object on a gray background. Yet when this image was made, both sides of the background were truly black! Window light from across the room reflected off the right side of the background and caused it to appear as gray in the image.

So how do we correct this? We must block off the light from the window. Then both sides of the background will show as black, darker than the object. Also, if we try to use flash, even at low power, chances are the flash will render the black background as gray. When we're shooting in such a dark area, we'll need to support our cameras so that the slow shutter speeds necessary will not cause camera shake. A firm surface, such as a table, can substitute for a tripod.

Below is an image in which a black background was achieved. No window light hit the background. The camera was steadied on a table top. The background material in this case was black velvet fabric, instead of black cardboard. And no flash was used.

Below in a single image we can see what our brains tell us. This image was shot in the same room as the two black-on-black images above. Both the table cloth and the backdrop cardboard were as white as white can be. But what do we see in the image? The table cloth looks white, but the backdrop cardboard looks light gray. More light was needed on this background to render it white. It was not facing the window. If it had been, then it would have looked as white as the table cloth in the image.

For some other examples, please see the Black-on-Black Gallery and the White-on-White Gallery

Clear or light-colored glass introduces additional problems when shooting against either a black or a white background. So please click on the link below to find out what these considerations are.

Clear Glass

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