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How to use black background for floral macro photography

Bill Staples (bills) on July 26, 2011

Keywords: micro, macro, close, photography, photographic, disciplines, guides, tips, tricks



I’ve received several comments (thanks!) on some of my floral macro photos posted on my site and some questions on how to do it, so I thought I’d post some details for anyone who wants to give it a try.

Click for image enlargement
Blue daisy


I live near Seattle, WA, where it gets dark at 4:30 pm in the winter, and sunrise is after 8:00am. That means I don’t actually see the sun, most days, during the winter, since I have a real job that doesn't involve photography, making it hard to do a lot of photography outdoors..


Last winter I started experimenting with indoor floral macros, using flowers purchased locally, black cardboard and/or drop cloth, typical 60 watt light bulb (I use a lamp with a flexible head so I can easily reposition to get just the right angle), tripod and my D100 + Nikkor 60mm 2.8D lens.



Start out by picking fresh flowers! Look for flowers without blemishes or wilt. You can’t make them look better than they are! Of course, vibrant colors help, and interesting patterns or textures on the pedals also make more interesting photos.

Pick a room that is dark, if there is a window, cover it. Turn off any overhead lights (once you are all set up). This prevents light from spilling onto the scene and background.

Position the light orthogonal, or at an angle to the lens, 90° is best. This means if you are shooting the flower straight on, the light should be above, or to the side of the flower. The background (black cloth or cardboard) is directly behind the flower, and should not be lit.



Avoid any light spilling onto the background by using another piece of cardboard or otherwise shade the background. 


Tilting the background at an angle sometimes helps avoid any light from reflecting back to the camera. You’ll note varying success on my part in keeping the background completely black, if you look through my site.


I wasn’t ultra disciplined last summer, but expect to start over this season with renewed vigor.


You are positioning the light to illuminate the flower, not the background, but most importantly you are illuminating the flower to achieve aesthetic results. Using a standard 60W bulb makes this easy because you can see the effect of the light on the flower (flashes make this more difficult). Move the light around a bit to see how the pedals respond, look for radiance or translucence as the light shines through the pedals (but not onto the background!).

Avoid overly bright areas, by moving the light back 3-4 feet from the flower. Once you have the light just right, lock it in place. Exposure metering is critical. Underexposing a little bit is actually desired, because it tends to bring out richer colors and helps achieve a darker background.



If you meter against the black background, and then dial in -3.0 or -4.0 EV (remember your meter is setting exposure to neutral gray). Or meter the flower and dial in -1/2 to -1.0 EV, if you are confident your background is three or four stops darker. Since I started shooting digital using a D100, I found it is a bit easier to experiment to get just the right exposure. Shoot a lot of frames, and pick the best one!


Photoshop, with its "burn" tool is your friend! Any spots on the background that don't come out dark enough can be "burned" just like the old days in the dark room, set the tool to burn only to the darkest shades. Other than that, the photos usually need a simple levels adjustment, sharpening and resize. 

The colors are "real" and pop out as a result of the light and black background.


Good luck!



(5 Votes)


Michaela Perata (mikiSJ) on March 9, 2016

I am a bit late to your article but from my perspective just in time. I have beautiful orchid a gave my partner a while ago and I want to image it for her. You have given me some good ideas on how to setup an bring out the flower and not the background.

Peter L Cleaver (piratepete) on September 4, 2015

Thanks Bill, gives me a new "project" to try out... cheers

Carl Crosby (mkbee1) on May 2, 2014

Bill; You make it look almost too easy! A great article, when many are trying to make good photography harder than it needs to be! THANK YOU!

Gerardo Cárdenas (elgeras) on July 3, 2013


Harihara Subramanian (shutterbug_iyer) on May 27, 2013

Thanks. At what distance do you normally shoot with the 60 mm lens.

Rob Avery (Robeaver) on April 1, 2013

Thanks, will give this a shot.

Tom Cerul (tcerul) on March 7, 2013

Great article, specific and to the point.