Getting The Black Black

Some say that one of the most difficult wildlife images to process is that of a black subject. If you work in a studio with artificial light at your disposal then I’d venture to suggest that it’s a lot easier than being outdoors with natural light… not always at your disposal. I’m not going to get into a discussion about studio light v natural but I would say that if you want to learn anything about light then studio work is perhaps the best place to start: your starting point is literally a black box.

The image of the crow above may prove helpful in understanding how to get black things black ‘in camera’…with a little help from post processing software. But a word of caution…you cannot make a black subject black if your ‘in camera’ starting point is nowhere near. Correct metering is the key as well as understanding what light does to ‘black’ colour. For example, Magpies appear to us as a black and white bird but if you photograph them correctly you might be surprised at the range of blues in their feathers and the iridescent nature of their backs.

However, if it’s a predominantly black subject like a crow then what you see is what you get…a black bird. I say predominantly because if you look at the first image of the crow you have to ask yourself, ‘What part of the bird is black’? Sounds a bit contradictory on the face of it but I’m asking the question from a photographer’s perspective: this is all about how your camera ‘sees’ the bird and where it sits on the histogram. Remember that your camera only sees in shades of grey from pure black ( on the far left) to pure white (on the far right). The centre of the histogram is mid tone grey (18% grey). But we can break down the histogram into clear sections like this:

See the source image

This is where metering your subject comes in. But we need to do this by stages (don’t worry, it becomes second nature once you’ve done it a couple of times):

  1. Look at the subject and decide which part of it is pure black. Think about it. Look at the image of the crow…what part of the crow is pure black? I would suggest that, given the available light, very little of the bird is pure black. This plays into the next stage…
  2. Metering. Spot meter the part of the subject you believe to be black with detail…perhaps the chest and the head area? Remember, if you spot meter on the black with detail your camera will ‘see it’ as a mid-tone and it will show in the central area of your histogram (18% grey). Not what you wanted. Now this is the important bit…
  3. Once you’ve spot metered off the black with detail apply a couple of negative stops so that the area you’ve metered falls on the dark+ area of your histogram ( what I call black with detail), and lock it in. Take the shot and you’ll see that exposure is correct for the subject. Blacks are black and black with detail is exactly that. You won’t underexpose the rest of the image because if you expose one part of the subject correctly (correctly placed on the histogram) then everything else will be correctly exposed too.

In a nut shell that’s how you make black’s black. In post processing you may need to adjust sliders a little to ensure that no purples or blues creep in due to the reflective light conditions at the time. Do this sensitively and you should end up with realistic colour. However, if you want your image to be just as you saw it then go ahead and leave all the iridescent colours flashing off the bird. Your choice. But remember that others may also be viewing your image and wondering why your crow isn’t black like all the crows they’ve seen!

Of course, you could just as easily save all this trouble and convert the image to black & white… but that would defeat the object wouldn’t it?! Or….

If you can identify a mid-tone then spot off that and everything will fall correctly on the histogram. But identifying mid-tones takes experience and time…but it’s worth it. Try it…take a few test shots of what you think is a mid-tone and check your histogram. With practice you’ll get it right.

We don’t live in a monochrome world my friends.

Good shooting.

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