Getting good details in black colored subjects can be a challenge.  It is easy to underexpose and clip the the blacks leaving no detail.  It is also possible to overexpose them cause them to feel washed out and hollow.  Getting that exposure just right can be the difference between a great image and a mediocre one.

As we discussed in our article on camera meters, they work by making everything 18% grey.  When metering for a black subject or a subject with a lot of black parts the camera is going to try and make those blacks into greys.  The rest of the image will be brighter than the black so the meter will want to underexpose the blacks to get correct exposure in the rest of the image.  All this factors together leave us the challenge of trying to find an exposure that works for all the colors in our image.

For this image I ended up with a little bit of a darker exposure overall to get nice blacks.

Unless you are working in a studio environment where you have control over every aspect of the lighting, choosing an exposure is often about choosing priorities.  When your subject is black or has a lot of dark colors getting the correct exposure for your subject becomes the priority. When working with macro we are often filling the entire frame with a small object, let’s say an insect for this example.  If that insect is black and filling most of the frame the camera is going to try and make it grey. Our subject is the priority, not the background so we’ll want to adjust our exposure to make the insect look its best.

How do we achieve this?  We will want to underexpose the image from what the camera meter is reading by up to 1 stop.  Depending on what mode you are using your camera in you can program it to automatically do the underexposing for you.  This will keep the rich blacks of your subject looking pure and not washed out. Also by keeping the the blacks true and rich you will get better edge detail and therefore a better image.  Another method for getting more details in your blacks is through HDR, more to come on this in future a future series.

There is a second scenario we face as macro photographers.  We are photographing an insect and it is only taking up a third of the frame.  Now the camera is look at a lot more than just the insect while calculating its exposure.  Often times under these conditions the blacks in the insect are underexposed, leaving detail in the subject very hard to see.  In these instances you will want to increase your exposure until you do have detail in the insect. The now overexposed background can now be a plus to help define the edge of the insect as well as bringing out those edge details on the exoskeleton.

Some post-processing was required to balance out the blacks and highlights present in this image.

In addition to getting the best exposure you can when taking the images there is a whole world of post processing that comes into play.  Digital images retain a lot more detail in the blacks or shadows than they do in the whites or highlights. This means when you are picking your exposure you may have to leave parts of the image darker than you would like and bring them out in post.  Be looking at your histogram to make sure you are not clipping and losing the detail complete though.

When you are bring out some details in the blacks in post use your black slider and the shadow slider.  A little bit here goes a long way. Those little bits of detail you can bring alive and add dimension and life to your subject.  One of macro photography’s greatest strengths is to reveal detail. Bring out every detail possible in those blacks.

What have your experiences been with photographing subjects that are black or have a lot of dark colors?  What techniques have you used to get the exposure you were looking for? Share in the comments below.