White Seamless Tutorial :: Part 3 :: From White To Black.


If you are just joining us, this is part three in a four or five part tutorial about the many uses of white seamless as a background material.  You can catch up by reading part 1part 2, and part 2b

We’ve taken our white seamless BG and made it pure white.  The task set before us now is to get a few more visual options out of that white seamless paper or simple white wall we are shooting against. 

When I got my first studio space I had few resources to fill it up with backgrounds and stuff that studios should have.  The very first thing I bought was a roll of white seamless paper.  I had to start using it with two lights.  One on the subject and one on the background.  That’s all well and good but I needed to have the ability to get as many looks out of that one background.  These are some of the simple and effective techniques I still use to get some different looks from a single background. 

The first thing you can do is simply turn the background lights off. 


The image above is the same exact photo except for the fact that I turned the BG lights off.  I shot one with the lights on.  Then one with the lights off.  Same settings on my main light and same settings on my camera.  Your white BG is now a medium grey. 

Here is a full length shot with the tile board removed. 


I removed the tile board because it can be a bit difficult to get it to blend seamlessly when you are lighting the BG.  It can be done you just have to finesse your light and shooting angle to the point where you no longer see the edges of the tile board on the floor and maintain a consistent tone of grey while still picking up a bit of reflection under your subject.  Currently I don’t have an example of that on hand.  I’ll dig for one in the archives and post it when I wrap this tutorial up. 

If you can wrap your head around things like inverse square law and feathering your light then you can begin to make that BG any shade of grey from black to light grey. 

Inverse square law is an equation that talks about math stuff about how light falls off over distance.  I’m a photographer.  I like pictures.  I don’t like physics. Inverse square law to me is like that quote about electricity that I’ve heard before… “I don’t know how electricity works but I use it everyday.” 

If you double your distance from flash to subject, you lose 75% of the light.  To me it seems like if you double distance then you lose half of your light but some dudes and some ladies (probably more dudes than ladies though) figured out that is not the case.  You double distance from flash to subject you lose 75% of the light.  Not 50%. 

In Myth Busters type of science that means when you double distance you lose 2 stops of light.  If you double one foot that means you lost two stops of light at the two foot mark.  If you double 20 feet… you lose two stops at the 40 foot mark. 

Let me say this now though… Before any of you get on here with your Texas Instruments graphing calculators to show me where I’m wrong on this… Take it to DPReview and fight it out there with the other measurebators.  I don’t care!  Like I said, this is some Myth Busters kind of science explanations. 

With a point light source like a straight flash it looks like this… 


From f22 to f16 that is 7 inches.  From f5.6 to f4 that is 3.5 feet.  If your subject was standing where the f22 tick mark on the wall is and the white seamless BG was over there by the 5.6 tick mark then by the time you expose properly for the subject at f22 then your BG would be (16, 11, 8, 5.6) FOUR stops under exposed from your subject. 

Here’s the basics that a public school educated guy like me can understand.  If you get your subject some distance away (like 10 feet let’s say)  from the BG and your light source really close to the subject (like 1 or 2 feet away) then once you properly expose for the subject…. the light falling off toward the BG falls off to the point that your BG can be 2 or 3 stops under exposed from the subject.  The more you under expose the BG the darker it gets. 

Again… The larger your ratio of exposure is from your subject to BG the darker the BG gets.  The smaller the ratio gets, the lighter the BG.  

Huh?  What?  Yeah, I know.  It looks like this without any use of Photoshop. 


I’m going to post that same photo right after this explanation… 

For these two images I kept the subject the same distance from the BG.  He was about ten feet from the wall there.  For the image on the left the softbox was about 5 feet away from him.  Exposure on him was f2 or something.  Then I moved it in really really close.  Just outside of the frame.  Once I closed down my aperture to compensate for the light being much closer to him, the light ratio between his face and the wall was now a larger ratio thus making the BG darker. 


Still don’t get it?  Reading my explanation over again won’t help much because I think it confuses me as well so let me try to sum it up another way.  All you engineers out there are laughing your butts off at me because this stuff is elementary.  Like I said, I went to public school. 

Get your subject about 10 feet off of a wall and get your light source 7 or 8 feet away from your subject in a position that light is hitting your subject AND your background.  Make a proper exposure for the light hitting your subject and look at the white BG.  It will be a lighter shade of grey. 

Keep your subject right there and more your light in really, really close to your subject.  Like one foot away (just outside of your frame).  You have now changed the exposure so you are going to have to stop down your aperture until you have a proper exposure on your subject.  Once you have the proper exposure on your subject, that white BG will now be a darker shade of grey than image you shot before with the light 7 or 8 feet away. 

If you are reading this and don’t get it… Get off your arse and go shoot it.  You’ll see it pretty quickly. 

You can further eliminate light falling on the BG to get the BG to go darker and darker still until you just “blow it to black” as I like to say.  Or, you make dark with light.  I typically do this with feathering my light and getting my subject even further away from the background. 

When you “feather” a light you are positioning your light in such a way that it isn’t pointing directly at your subject.  Instead, it is pointing a little bit away from subject yet not pointed so far away that you are no longer lighting your subject.  You are just wanting the subject to catch the feathered edge of light coming out of your modifier.  Point that light AWAY from the BG yet still getting some on your subject. 

If you tweak your feathered light just right and have a good distance from your BG then you can take that white seamless (or just about any other color of BG) and it will become black. 

Here is a four light set.   


Two lights on the BG, one light with a grid to light his arm, one light zoomed in to light his face.  Here is what it looks like on white… 


Remember how I talked about my philosophy in all of this is I light my subject independently from my BG?  With my lights on my subject set up properly, those lights aren’t adding any exposure to my BG.  So if I turn the BG lights off and just use that tight grid and a zoomed Vivitar 285 I get this… 


I did NOT change the white background out for a black one!  I pinky promise!  I just kept that grid and that zoomed light positioned in a way that none of that light hit the BG. NOTE – I’m staying at my sync speed on my shutter speed to make sure I’m killing any and all ambient light falling on the BG. Shutter speed controls ambient light. Even though there was light in the studio when I was shooting, I was shooting at f8 at 250th of a second or there about so I wasn’t exposing any ambient light in these images with black backgrounds. 


For the image above she was about 15 to 16 feet away from the BG.  I had a big softbox pointing just in front of her.  Enough for the feathered edge to light her.  Then I had a second light add a bit of a side light for separation making sure that the side light did not hit the background. 

Grid spots are awesome.  You can use those things to keep light off of any BG you may be using like this… 


Grid spots have a small feathered edge of light.  You can point the main circle of light in front of your subject and just get their face into that feathered edge and it looks like this… 


You can grid a subject again, add a background light pointing toward your subject and get this… 


You can take a big ol’ softbox, move your subject away from the BG as much as possible (like 15 feet or so), under expose the whole thing just a bit and get this… 


Take it light grey… 


Take it darker… 


Set your BG lights to a low power setting and get them evenly positioned on the BG and match the BG exposure with the subject exposure and get a very even tone of grey through an image… 


Position your light in just the right spot where you get just a bit of separation from dark shirt or hair to a darker BG… 


Keep the light on your subject but OFF of your white BG so that the BG goes black.  Then double or triple stack some colored gels on your BG lights and set them to a fairly low power setting and you can now add color to your white BG… 


IF you let the clean white light from the subject light hit the BG when you are trying to gel it to a color, then you are going to contaminate that gelled color back there and you’ll lose the saturation of the color you are trying to achieve.  I used a grid spot in the image above to keep light just on the subject and off of the BG.  I kept him far enough away from the BG that the red light from the BG didn’t wrap around him and give me some funky color shift on the subject. 

White.  Grey.  Black.  Red.  Blue.  Whatever.  One background.  Many options. 

The next tutorial will be about what we can do with some of these images in post production.  I’ll show you things I do in 30 to 60 seconds of time that changes things up even more. After that I’ll post a few different lighting techniques for lighting your subject on the white seamless.  Then I’ll have a post where I’ll be open to questions in the comment section and I’ll cover the questions already in the comment section now. 

Then I’ve got something fun for us after that and that will conclude this tutorial!  You can expect for this to be all wrapped up this month.  My schedule is a bit hectic right now. 

Continue reading :: Part 4 :: Simple Changes In Post Production. 

ETA – If you have questions about any of this, drop them in the comment section here on Part 5 of the tutorial. I will be following up on this tutorial with a new post answering all the questions at once.

Cheers, Zack


  • Dwayne Hills said on May 8, 2008

    Zack your time and effort you put into these blog post are very mush appreciated. once again I hope to attend a workshop one day.

  • Ian Mitchell said on May 8, 2008

    I have to agree with the Dwayne Hills! Eye opening stuff, the time you’ve taken to write this is much appreciated!!

  • Graham said on May 8, 2008

    Thanks again Zack, excellent tutorial and great work.

  • Myra Klarman said on May 8, 2008

    So much information here! Thanks to you, I may never change background paper ever again! Much gratitude and respect.

  • Mark Adams said on May 8, 2008

    Zack, These posts are so, so, so helpful, even for a guy like me who has been shooting for 15 years. Thank you!!

  • Jimmy Douglas said on May 8, 2008

    What an awesome series. I have read several articles on this subject and yours is tops. I love that you explain it, then back it up with photos.
    Looking forward to your seminar in Kansas City.

  • zack said on May 8, 2008

    You are all very welcome!


  • Bruce said on May 8, 2008

    Yeah – what they said! Very much appreciated Zack. Keep on.

  • matt miller said on May 8, 2008

    oh man zack…..i think the this is all staring to make sense now. thanks for bringing it down to street level for the public school kids. i am really hoping to attend the atlanta seminar in november. im starting a savings fund as we speak. thanks so much for your time and effort to helping all of us learn!

  • Teemu said on May 8, 2008

    Great post, I enjoyed a lot! Thanks!

  • Jessica said on May 8, 2008

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!!!!

  • Alana said on May 8, 2008

    Thank you again — these are so great!!!

  • Samantha McGranahan said on May 8, 2008

    you are so awesome! i can’t believe i stumbled upon all of this info~ thank you thank you…

  • Melissa Powell said on May 8, 2008

    Zack, you pretty much rock. But you already knew that. 😉

    Thanks man!

  • René said on May 8, 2008

    Dude, YAAFG!

    That said with lots of love.


  • Danny Ngan said on May 8, 2008

    OK. *This* is exactly what is inspiring me to go shoot more. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge. One of these days, I’ll get to a OneLight if you ever make it to Seattle again. The next Seattle one is already full. :(

  • K.C. Larsen said on May 8, 2008

    Zack, Zack, Zack, you are simply the man. Now I have to go back and read this again, so much information.

  • Bliss said on May 9, 2008

    Superb!! Thanks a lot, Zack.

  • David Burke said on May 10, 2008

    Zack, I cannot thank you enough for all of the information. The workshop in ATL, last November helped me sooo much. To have this as a followup is nothing short of a blessing.

    I just scored a studio here with very high ceilings, 14.5′ wide and 45.5′ long. I cannot wait to try these and really push my skill.

    God Bless Brutha!


  • Minghao Yang said on May 12, 2008

    Hello, Zack! We have met at the mixer hosted in Janelle’s house. I felt bad didn’t get to attend your workshop then, and now I felt worse about not being able to go after abel sent me this link.

  • Abel Longoria said on May 13, 2008

    Great information indeed Zack…

    As Minghao alluded to I posted this blog post on our forum because I knew many other photographers would also appreciate the knowledge you have shared here.

    I know that I myself have learned a great deal not only from the OLW here in Houston. The posts are a tremendous help which not only reinforce what I learned at OLW but also to help build upon it..

    Next trip to Texas we definitely need you to make two stops in each major city…

    It shows that your workshops sell out on their own as it is and I know we can get a second one filled with just our members…


  • Mike said on May 14, 2008


    Totally awsome tutorials, thanks for sharing that.
    Also thanks to Dave Cross Adobe Guru
    for providing the link.

    All the best Zack.


  • William Chinn said on May 14, 2008

    Great pictures aside, you made the detail very informative with a fantastic writing style. You made your parents proud! With a little bit of story telling to be thrown in, this is a great start on a photo tech book.

  • Deb said on May 14, 2008

    All I can say is THANK YOU!!! I learned so much at One Light-Detroit and now your online tutorials are just reinforcing all that great learning.
    Please come back to Michigan soon—I’ll host in Grand Rapids :)

  • Mike said on May 14, 2008

    Hi Zack,

    You Rock.

    How about coming to France to do a workshop.

    Just a thought.

    All the best


  • Mr Bill said on May 14, 2008

    You are THE MAN…you turned on a lot of lights for me.

  • Geoff Wilde said on May 16, 2008

    so there is hope for me yet. I’m going to try following this because it’s great. Great concept, great write-up, great tutorial!

    did I say it’s great?

  • Keith Taylor said on May 16, 2008

    I’m sold! Where do I buy your book! I love the way you write and your teaching style fits me perfectly. I’m serious. Do you have a book out on lighting or portrait photography?


  • Zack DeLaune said on May 26, 2008

    Holy crap this is amazing. What an easy read, and packed with so much info. You have totally demystified studio lighting for me. THANK YOU.

  • Anthony Tamayo Jr. said on May 30, 2008

    The info you have here is gold!

  • Amanda said on June 4, 2008

    This has to be the coolest info EVER! So easy to understand…we must have went to the same public school! The south ROCKS! 😉

  • James said on June 5, 2008

    Thanks Zach! You are a such a great teacher! Everything was so easy to understand the way you write it. Thanks so much for all this valuable information.

  • Ray Pempengco said on June 13, 2008

    You, sir, are awesome. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. Now, I’m off to buy a white background. Many thanks.

  • Tony Jr. said on June 19, 2008

    You da man! Thanks for shedding some “light” on the subject. (I crack my self up)

  • Phil said on June 20, 2008

    You rock… period.

  • Ree said on June 29, 2008

    Thanks for the tutorials.. they are fab… I have alien bees landing tomorrow and I can’t wait to try them out….

  • Chris said on July 3, 2008


    Without doubt, THE best tutorials I’ve seen on the web. Thanks a million for sharing.


  • Lisa said on July 17, 2008

    Well, I’d say your public school education has served you very well! This public school teacher was having a hard time following your “elementary” explanation. And even though “I get it”, I still don’t get it. LOL! However, having said that, I absolutely LOVE your tutorials and technique and thank you most sincerely for your effort and sharing your expertise! Even though I am a teacher, I am still a learner! Thanks for helping me! WOOHOO, ZACK!

    PS- How are you keeping the main light off the background in the photo of the chick with the feathers if it’s pointing directly at her and she’s standing in front of the background?

  • Jeff said on July 24, 2008

    Good stuff!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Art said on August 7, 2008

    I just finished building your setup in my basement. Even with the low ceiling challenges, the results are amazing. I can’t wait to play more, and do some portraits! MANY thanks for a GREAT set of tutorials! What wonderful explanations and samples!

  • MoJo said on August 12, 2008

    My camera only syncs at 1/180. :-/
    Should that hender me getting simular results?

  • Daniel Condurachi said on August 16, 2008

    Thank you so much for the knowledge and time you put into this. I am not even a rookie in lighting because I have no off camera lighting for now, just the build in flash. But, I love to learn new things about photography even if I can not apply it for now. Thank you for helping be gather a whole treasure of knowledge, that I will be using soon, I hope.
    Be blessed!

  • Daniel said on August 25, 2008

    Cheers from Germany!

    Thanks for the site and sharing your knowledge, first time I understood lighting.
    Keep up the good work!


  • Orrza said on September 3, 2008

    a real mind opener!
    Thanx for sharing your knoledge.


  • Dave said on September 5, 2008


    Great explanations and images, thanks for taking the time to share.


  • John Kavanagh said on October 4, 2008

    It’s nice to have someone explain techniques such as this in a clear way – not making it sound like something Stephen Hawkings would come up with. Brilliant, thanks

  • David Clark Photography said on October 30, 2008

    i swear you are my new hero. can i kiss your feet? you have just explained everything in a way i understand. thanks for being you !!!

  • Joe Justice said on November 7, 2008

    Good Lord, why have I spent so much money on books? This is the most useful studio lighting “tutorial” I’ve ever read. Thanks, bro!!

  • Harry Arruda said on November 18, 2008

    So I fear lighting for some reason and as a result have always shot with natural light. Pathetic and Chicken S#%t I know. Somebody refers me to the site and two hours later I’m at Home Depot buying doors, paint and tile board with HD gift cards I got as a wedding gift ! I’m happy and the wife thinks I’m doing her honey do list….NOT ! Later that night I go through the rest of the website after painting my doors white and find myself using my PayPal account credit to buy the One Light DVD. Two winners and one loser – Zach gets my money and many props. I get cool s#*t, skills that make me look good and get over my fear of lighting. My wife ……. for now she the loser cause she thinks the closet door were for her closet !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Enough! Question. So in lesson one you mentioned that you painted the closet doors white on one side and wished you had painted the back side black. But I never saw the reason behind why the back side needed to be black. Can you explain.

    Your making me look good with these lessons,


  • zack said on November 20, 2008

    Harry! That’s a funny comment!


  • Kevin said on November 22, 2008

    thank you so much.

    best regards from germany!

  • Vladislav said on January 22, 2009

    It`s amazing and simple explanation. Nothing what I dont now, but very clear. I`ll read all your lessons. Thank you, Zack! And write more! :)

  • Halle said on February 21, 2009

    Incredible shots & tutorials. Thank you for sharing!

  • Roger Moore said on May 19, 2009


    Thank you for the excellent tutorials. I used your techniques during a recent photo shoot. I tried to mimic your shot of the man with the tatoo.

    My question is with his right eye. Did you have to lighten it during post-processing? It looks lighter than his left and it seems it wouldn’t be that bright based on the light direction & intensity.

  • zack said on May 20, 2009

    Hi Roger,
    I did not lighten his eye in post. I think it just looks lighter since it is surrounded by more dark tones than the other eye. All I did to that image was convert it to B&W and extend the black background.


  • banjo said on June 11, 2009

    This is what I’ve been looking for! I’m so anxious today that I purchased a 3×6 white backdrop and won’t be able to use it as black backdrop but this has proved me wrong! Thanks zack!!!!

  • Jenifer Burnett said on August 4, 2009

    yes,this is totally awesome. the time you have taken and detail you went to explain is phenonenal. Thank you so much.

  • Dush said on August 22, 2009


    You’re Amazing… This tutorial is an inspiration for one and all

    Can you put together a tutorial on how to create dark back ground effects out doors in natural light? is it available already…?


  • Villy Sander Noraas said on September 30, 2009

    HiHi Zack
    I do like your blog. My english are not so perfect. You are talking about inverse square law.

    You see, when you say 75% it seams to me it’s natural.
    Let me say it the other way, if i want to reduse my 4 strobes with 2 stops i have to take away 3 of them and this is 75% of the area.

    Let me explain more exactly, with 4 strobes together this is 100%. If i want to get 1 stop less i will have to take away 2 strobes. I will have to reduse the area with 50%. Yes 1 stop means 50%.

    Now i have 2 strobes left and i have redused with 1 stop.

    To reduse futhermore 1 stop i will have to take away 1 strobe. This is 50% again.

    Now i have redused from 4 strobes to 2 (1 stop) and then again redused with 1 more i have one more stop less.

    If i go from 4 to 1 strobes this is 2 stops less, and this is a reduction of 75% of the area from 4 to 1 strobe.
    This is natural and make sense. I’m i right og wrong?

    regards from Norway
    Villy Sander Norås

  • Robert said on October 13, 2009

    You need to write a book. You paint a very nice picture with your writing.

  • Russell07 said on October 29, 2009

    You comment that it seems like when you double distance, you expect light falling to halve in brightness.

    A very easy way to correct the thinking on this is to remember that the light is travelling in all directions (up, down, left, right, etc), not just the direction you are measuring in.

    Imagine a balloon inflated so it’s just about round and put a black dot on it.

    Now imagine (bear with me) that your mouth is the light source and your breath is “light”.

    Now you have to blow up the balloon some and imagine that when the dot hits your subject it will be lit.

    To get the dot an extra inch from where it is now is easy right – hardly any breaths needed.

    But as you want the dot to light things further and further away, the harder and harder you have to work to get it to move away from you.

    This is because most of your breath now is pushing the balloon outwards aswell as forwards.

    This is why light power drops off more quickly the further away you get – because it needs that much more work from the flash to get the same power for each inch away you get (just like the balloon).

    Now I just wish I could take awesome photos like these!!

  • zack said on November 4, 2009

    Well done!

  • narly said on December 2, 2009

    Hey Zach

    Long time reader, first time caller :)

    Just want to thank you for sharing this amazing amount of information. The world of flash photography is a complete unknown to me, but the way you explain it kicks ass and makes me want to get out there and try it (sadly, I am sitting at work, so should probably do some work instead).

    Thanks again and warmest regards,

    ~ narly

  • Blaise - Photographe Mariage Nice said on January 21, 2010

    Fantastic information! Will definately give it a try. All I have to work on now is a yellow-ish wall – let’s see if I can make that wall white :)


  • DelBoi said on February 12, 2010


    i’m still a newbie when it comes to strobist or using a strobe. your blog and tutorials here are really an eye-opener for me. simply amazing!

    thanks and more power to you! hope that you get the chance to have a seminar here in the Philippines someday.

    …cheers! =o)

  • Desmond said on February 24, 2010

    Hi Zack thank you so very much for this tutorial. do you have a pdf format for this tutorial or any other of your post

    thanks again Zack for the great info
    cheer :)

  • Geoff said on February 27, 2010

    Far out brussel sprout…
    How did I miss this one? Fantastic Zack. Just what I needed for a class next week 😉

  • PhotosByStephan said on April 20, 2010

    I’m sorry… why wasn’t I charged admission before entering?

  • J McMahon said on May 17, 2010

    You rock man! You’ve answered soo many questions I had about lighting backgrounds with just this post. Thanks again, love this stuff!

  • Brian Powell said on May 19, 2010

    Zach! I can’t learn a dang thing because I’m too busy ‘ROTFLMAO’! :))

    Seriously though – I’m doing this photog thing and we finally have a house with a (too)small room, so started looking for BG setups and this tut is the shizzle.

    Big Props,

  • Brian Powell said on May 19, 2010

    ps- sorry I spelled your name wrongly, Zack.

  • zack said on May 19, 2010

    Everyone does Bryun. Everyone does. :)

  • Lech said on September 10, 2010

    Thanks for sharing so much of your wisdom. I stayed up tonight (um, didn’t do my work that I was supposed to do) and read all the white background tutorials. You really do a fantastic job explaining this. I set up a poor mans studio with a couple of after market flashes, an old piece of whiteboard, and a bunch of random objects as gobos and I feel like a new man. I think I’ll stop going to church and just read your blog instead.

    No really, this is all great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  • Mike Walker said on October 6, 2010

    I love you man!!! I found my way here to check out seamless white info but this black tutorial has opened my eyes to a whole new world. Thank you!

  • Amy Armstrong said on December 20, 2012

    Will you PLEASE tell me what settings you used to achieve that amazing red background?!!! I’ve been working my butt off and can’t for the life of me get a decent color behind a subject. What white balance setting did you use? Which lens? Aperture? ISO? Power setting on the flash?

    Right now I’m setting my flash at the lowest setting (Elinchrom), gelling both monolights with the desired color (I also tried doubling up on one light), and using an aperture of 8 or above. I’m using a pretty high ISO setting, but I haven’t even tried lighting the subject yet, so it could get really dicey soon. Thanks for all your insight on this blog. I’ve learned SO much, and I can’t wait to learn more!

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