What Is The Ultimate Backdrop For Creative Portraiture?

Grey Backdrop

When shooting a creative studio portraiture, the goal is to make the subject stand out by making the backdrop  “disappear” from the field of vision. So what better choice of colour than pure black? Is black the ultimate backdrop?

The Human Eye Is Drawn Towards Bright Colours

Whether you realise it or not, the human eye is naturally drawn towards bright colours. And the nature of a good portraiture is that you would always want to draw the viewers’ eyes to the person in the portraiture, not to the distracting background.

B&W Eye Exercise

If you look at the left image, your eyes would be drawn towards the edges of the image, towards the lighter periphery. But on the right image, your eyes would have been drawn towards the centre of the image, ignoring the darker edges of the image. This is because the human eye is naturally attracted to bright colours.

White Backdrop

You would have noticed with the example above that your eyes are drawn away from the subject (the woman), towards the white edges of the image frame. This makes a rather weak portrait.

With that in mind, the natural conclusion would be to use dark colours (even black) when shooting portraits. Herein lies the problem…

Black Backdrop For Studio Portraiture

Black Backdrop

Half of the world’s population, especially Asians, tend to have dark hair, even black. And that will cause a major problem, as it blends into the background. A portrait like this will end up with a very bright face, like a victim of a horror movie, having her face cut off the rest of the head, and placed onto a black surface…

Contrasting Colour Backdrop

The most common colour for passport and ID mugshots are some shade of blue, usually a blue to white graduate.

Blue Gradient

It’s a pretty good solution to make the black hair stand out from the background. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly look very attractive, even less creative.

So if we can’t use something mundane like the standard mugshot backdrop, how about if we spice things up by using an abstract backdrop instead?

Abstract Colour Backdrop

Burst Backdrop

I suppose that’s a pretty good substitute for a completely black backdrop. And it’s still pretty good looking too… Except… Except that nothing really stands out quite like the black backdrop. You know what they say about black – Black is always the most artistic choice of colour.

So is there no possibility to use a black backdrop at all?… Not quite. You still can use the artistic black backdrop. In fact, I personally prefer to use a plain black backdrop over any other backdrops, whether plain colour or patterned abstract.

The only way to make the black hair stand out from the black backdrop is by making a halo effect on the edges of the hair. This gives a perception of the 3D hair “floating” on top of the black backdrop.

Black Backdrop Again, But With Halo Effect

Hair Light

Wow!… That looks really nice… But can it really be done in real life?… Of course it can. It takes a little bit of ingenuity, and a whole lot of understanding of how light works. But ultimately, you can use a black backdrop to shoot portraits of people with black hair.

The secret is actually in mastering a simple lighting technique. This technique could be known by many different names, but I personally call it the “hair-light effect”.

Examples Of Black Backdrop With Halo Effect


This is the extreme case, where not only is the backdrop black, but the model is dressed in black too. Notice how not only the hair is visibly highlighted, but the whole dress as well.

And the model really does become the centre of attention, as the viewers’ eyes are drawn away from the dark backdrop, and towards the bright portion of the image, the model herself.

Here is another example, again black backdrop, and again with the model dressed in black.


What’s The Secret Of Bringing Up The Black Edges On A Black Background?

Well, it isn’t exactly a secret. It is just all in the matter of understanding how light functions, and use that knowledge to create an image that will help to bring put your subject from the background. I suppose you can call it a studio light technique, one that I had developed myself, and proven to work wonderfully.

And no, before you ask, I will not share the technique here in this article… It is not that I want to keep it a secret, but because it can get a little technical. Besides, it is not just how to set up the lighting to get the “hair-light effect”, but a complex combination of studio lighting covering the primary light source, the fill-in light source, backdrop light source and the “hair-light effect” light source.

If you are interested to learn how to create this “hair-light effect”, you might be interested to know that this technique is included in my professional photography mentorship programme. If you want to know more, or perhaps sign up for the programme, then drop me a message.

One Reply to “What Is The Ultimate Backdrop For Creative Portraiture?”

  1. Pingback: Lighting Technique For Studio Fashion Shoot - Solarex Imaging

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