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Get the Shot! Macro Black Background

By: Todd Winner
The black background macro shot is something every underwater photographer should have in their portfolio. It’s fairly easy to pull off and it produces nice clean uncluttered compositions. We use small apertures, fast shutter speeds and low ISO to block any ambient light and the subject is 100% strobe lit. There are different ways to achieve a black background but the easiest technique is to find a subject or a camera angle that has at least a few feet of open water behind it. Because the water does not reflect any light back to the camera we get a black background. To start with, look for subjects on sea whips, sea fans and kelp. These are easy locations to find open water behind.


Canon EOS 5DS R, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, 1/200 sec at f/16. ISO 160 

Key settings


  • Macro lens 

  • Manual camera exposure. 

  • Small aperture (f/11 - f/18) (f/5.6 - f/11 for compacts)

  • Fast shutter speed that will sync with your strobes (1/125 -1/250) (most compacts can sync much faster so use a higher shutter speed if you need to block out ambient light)

  • Low ISO (100-200)

  • Manual or TTL strobes (if shooting TTL your subject needs to fill a large portion of the frame)

  • Strobe placement (there is no one size fits all for strobe placement but since we are shooting macro, keep your strobes close to your macro port. Experiment with different angles and power ratios)

  • Subject or camera angle that allows for open water behind the subject.

Canon EOS 5DS R, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, 1/200 sec at f/13. ISO 320 

Getting the Shot


  1. After finding a subject with a few feet of water behind it, set your camera to manual and adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO. You want to use manual exposure settings because the auto modes will try to adjust the setting to allow in ambient light.

  2. Take a shot with your strobes turned off. You should be seeing a black frame. If not, double check your settings, use a smaller aperture and or point your camera away from the sun.

  3. Turn on your strobes and take a shot. Fine tune your exposure by adjusting strobe power and or distance if using manual strobes or use flash compensation if you are shooting TTL strobes. If there are a lot of particles in the water you may get some backscatter.  To reduce backscatter, you can try tilting the strobes out slightly to just get the edge of the light or try reducing the strobe power and move in closer. If done correctly, you should be seeing a saturated foreground subject with a nice black background.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, 1/160 sec at f/10. ISO 160

Post production


If you properly exposed the image, these type of shots typically require minimum
post production. These are my general setting in Lightroom for macro black background images.
  1. Fine tune the exposure in the basic tab.
  2. Add a little clarity and maybe vibrance in the basic, presence tab. Not too much +20 or less.
  3. Remove any backscatter using the healing brush.
  4. Add some sharpening with a mask in the detail tab.
  5. Possibly add a small post-crop vignette in the effects tab.

 Canon EOS 5DS R, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, 1/200 sec at f/13. ISO 160