Black Seamless is the Best Seamless

My home studio is still in its first steps. I love my space but for a studio workspace it is somewhat small. It’s really not much bigger than that of my college dorm, no height, no width, somewhere there has to be a compromise.

The trade-off in such a small setup is that I cannot easily separate lighting on my backdrops from the lighting that hits the model. This has always been a friendly reminder to keep it simple, don’t use too many lights, or at least, don’t use more than you really need. Since there isn’t much space to move away from the backdrops we have to account for backdrop spillage from the key lights. The main light, whether I want it to or not will ultimately end up lighting part of the backdrop while also lighting the model.

For both white and grey seamless backdrop papers, the backdrop will be lit fairly well from the key light but you will have to account for shadows from the model. There is one work around that I entertain and that is the use of the black seamless backdrop.


Normally, a black seamless backdrop would not have any place in a regular studio if space was not an issue. Simply move the subject and all lights backward away from your seamless backdrop, any color, any size, after a few more feet the light will fall off before it is able to reflect off of the backdrop. Voila, a black backdrop, anytime, anywhere. But, with the use of a black seamless, all light hitting it is absorbed and the same effect is created.

The science behind this lies in the use of the Zone System. The Zone System at its core explains that there is a scale a tonal values from black to white, 0-X, that account for all the different light levels, including those represented in photographs. It would appear that the Zone System has no place and should be disregarded until you also notice that the reflective light meter that is built into a camera measures for an exposure at an 18% Zone V middle gray, the same as the gray seamless paper. A black seamless is exactly five stops less than the middle gray seamless, meaning that it will handle five stops more light spilling onto it before it looks like the gray seamless. This is excellent for a small working area.

Sounds complicated but it’s really not, every light meter in every camera has always measured for a middle gray. Photograph a white wall and it doesn’t look quite as bright as it should be, because white sits a few zones above zone V and the exposure must be changed accordingly based on the reading. Photographing a white wall without changing exposure up a couple stops will leave the wall rendering closer to a middle gray tone, the light meter is just doing its job.

In short, the black seamless in a small workspace will give me more options with lighting because I don’t have to worry about lighting the background when I don’t mean to. At the same time, a completely black backdrop makes it easier to change out to something else in post production.


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