white on white

...and black on black

Strictly, there is no such thing as white on white, though the picture of the light bulb above comes close. Even there, you are dealing with a range of very pale colours. These are usually greys or creams though the same techniques apply for any pale colours. If the tones are too close they merge together and you can no longer see edges or internal detail. Perhaps surprisingly, the most disturbing problems with white on white are when you can just about see the edges, but you have to strain to do so. Likewise black on black: the essential technique lies in differentiating closely related tones via lighting, exposure, texture and differential reflectivity.

 

 

A white marble sculpture is a white-on-white subject, but the interplay of light and shade gives it plenty of texture and detail -- especially under the Maltese sun. This is one of the Stations of the Cross at Ta'Pinu in Gozo, photographed on Kodak EBX using a Voigtländer Bessa-R2 and a 90/3.5 Apo-Lanthar. This is perhaps the first and most important lesson in shooting white on white: hard, directional light often makes life a lot easier.

colour and black and white

White on white is usually much more of a problem in colour photography than in black and white, because black and white can hold a wider range of tones than colour, and it is more of a problem with digital photography or slides than with negative film, whether colour or monochrome. We have assumed that you are using colour slide film or a digital camera, as these are the most critical. The same techniques will work a fortior with negatives and black and white slides.

 

 

 

Under flat lighting, much of the subject matter in this shot on the right is all but identical in colour and tone. The egg and the backdrop, in particular, are very close, as illustrated in another picture below, but by careful lighting and exploiting the differential reflectivities of the various materials, and by cutting exposure in order to accentate what little colour there is, a very large range of tones has been extracted from the subject.

Stereoscopic vision

An important factor is that the camera has only one lens, while most of us have two working eyes. Quite a lot of our impression of depth comes from stereoscopic vision, and it is quite common for the impression of depth to disappear, or at least diminish greatly, if you close one eye. Roger had this problem on a regular basis when he worked as an assistant in London in the early 1970s. The 'creatives' in the advertising agency associated with the studio would quite often draw white-on-white 'scamps' (references for shooting) and then get quite abusive when the problems of white-on-white were explained to them: "I can ****ing draw it so why can't you ****ing photograph it?" was the usual question.

 

 

 

Eventually it proved quickest to set up the shot and invite them down to look at it. They would say, "See, I told you that you could ****ing do it," and we would say, "Now close one eye," and they would say, "Oh ****, what happened?" And we'd explain again about cameras having only one eye.

 

Even when a subject does merge with its background, the brain will often supply the missing edge: we know that an egg is egg-shaped, so we don't necessarily notice that the whole outline is not entirely clear. In a photograph, where we may look at something more closely than we do in real life and where there is no stereo vision, the brain may be less willing to supply the missing information.

 

There are many ways to deal with or at least ameliorate the problem: no fewer than eighteen are listed below. Some may seem rather obvious, but when you are faced with a white-on-white problem it can be all too easy to overlook the obvious. Also, there is a degree of overlap: how different are moving the camera and moving the subject? Inevitably, some work better than others: often, you will need to use two or more of these tricks together.

This detergent holder is not an exciting subject but it well shows the problem. The upper one is lit principally from above with diffuse light. You can just about make out the boundaries, but the effect is very unpleasant. The other is somewhat easier to 'read' because it is lit directionally with a light just above the camera and exhibits the 'limb effect'. Both hard light and the limb effect are covered below.

 

 

A classic white-on-white nightmare with diffuse lighting. Yes, you can see the edges -- but it hurts your eyes.

By cutting exposure by 2/3 stop (#8), the differentiation is much improved but the front is now rather dark

A white bounce on either side of the box, just out of shot (#11), lightens the front without too many adverse effects.

eighteen ways to handle white-on-white

1  changing the subject or the background

2  sharp focus

3  contrasty lenses

4  lighting the background separately

5  using shadows

6  filtration

 

7  changing film stocks or white balance

8  careful exposure

9  the limb effect

10  differential reflectivity (texture)

11  black and white bounces

12  using harder light

13  moving the subject

14  moving the light

15  moving the camera

16  retouching

17  sharpening

18  cutting out

1  changing the subject or the background

Well, we said some of them were obvious.... But unless white-on-white is essential to the shot, this is likely to be the easiest approach. It is usually easiest to change the background, but the subject may be available in different colours: for example, does it have to be a white egg rather than a brown one?

 

The actual colours of the pig and the fabric are closer than they would be if he were on white paper, but the textural differences make it easier to distinguish the two, at least where focus is sharp. A black bounce (#11) puts a line across the pig's back to increase differentiation.

 

2  sharp focus

This is obvious as soon as you think about it, but it is not something that you automatically think about. If the boundary between subject and background is in sharp, clear focus, it will be a lot easier to see it. This often means stopping well down for maximum depth of field, or possibly using swings and tilts if you are shooting with a camera that has them.

 

3  contrasty lenses

A sharp, contrasty lens will help in two ways. First, there will be less flare, and second, it will render texture better -- and textural differences can be critical, as noted below.

When you are shooting black on black -- for which many of the same techniques apply as for white-on-white, except that it is generally wise to over-expose slightly rather than under-exposing slightly -- a contrasty lens can be even more important than with white-on-white. If the lens is prone to flare, as was the elderly zoom used to shoot this (a Vivitar Series 1 90-190 Flat Field), you need the deepest lens-shade you can muster and preferably a 'flag' between the light and the camera as well. ('Flag' is defined in the free glossary, or see our Lighting for Photographers.

 

4  lighting the background separately

If the background is lit only with 'spill' from the main lights, you have far less control over it than if you light it separately. You may need to snoot or flag the background light (these terms are explained in the Glossary, which is free) so that no unwanted light falls on the subject, or you may even decide to transilluminate the background. This can give quite wide control.

 

5  shadows
Again this is obvious, and arguably it stops the picture from being true white-on-white, but very often you can use a shadow (even a very small one) to differentiate the subject from the background -- or at least, to differentiate that part of the subject that is merging with the background.

Shadows are really just another example of hard light; they increase differentiation at the expense of creating a greater tonal range, taking you even further from 'white on white'. In the picture on the left, though, flare is losing some of the differentiation from the background. On the other hand the internal detail in the pig's face is greater.

 

6  filtration

This will not always work, but it may be worth trying. Very weak filtration via a 'skylight' filter (very, very pale pink requiring no increase in exposure) or a CC025 (colour correction 025, available in red, green, blue, cyan, magenta and yellow) may differentiate two slightly differing colours sufficiently without introducing an overall unacceptable colour cast, though anything except a 'warm' cast (red, orange, pink or yellow) will normally be unpleasantly obvious.

Another possibility is a polarizing filter, with or without polarization of the light source.

 

7  changing film stocks or white balance

Changing the film stock (with slide film) or colour balance (with digital) may have similar effects to filtration. At best, you will get the differentiation you need without an unpleasant color cast. At worst, the colour may not be what you want. It is worth knowing, though, that photographers who specialize in particular subjects often find that a particular film suits their work better than any other.

 

8  careful exposure

When you are dealing with very light tones, even the slightest over-exposure can cause the highlights to 'blow' to a featureless white. Often, indeed, you need slight under-exposure to differentiate very subtle variations in tone.

The easiest way to do this is to take an incident light reading and then cut the exposure slightly: typically by around 1/2 stop, though as much as one stop may not look unnatural. Unless you have plenty of experience, it is a good idea to bracket (free module) at half under, one under and even two under. Similar results may be obtained by taking a highlight reading with a spot meter and then cutting the exposure by a similar amount. There is a chargeable module on exposure determination for slides and digital.

 

 

Frances wanted a very restricted palette in this picture of Cisette, one of her favourite dolls -- but she provided some contrasting colours to help differentiate the doll from the background and fully exploited the textural differences of the parasol and the background. The optimum exposure was the one that just barely gave texture in the doll's dress, most easily determined with an incident light meter.

Ordinary broad-area or centre-weighted reflected light readings are complicated by the fact that a white-on-white subject will fool the meter into recommending quite severe underexposure, quite possibly more than a stop, which will be more compensation than you need. If you meter this way, bracket on the side of overexposure: one at the recommended exposure, half over, one over, two over.

If you have a camera with a clever multi-point metering system it is impossible to say what will give you the best exposure, but it is a safe bet that in most cases the camera will recommend anything from slight under-exposure to severe under-exposure, so bracket in the same way as for an ordinary broad-area or centre-weighted system.

9  the limb effect

Unsurprisingly, this takes its name from the way that an arm or leg -- or any cylindrical or near-cylindrical object -- reflects the light. The amount of light reflected by any surface depends on the angle at which light strikes it, and obviously, with a cylinder, light strikes at 90 degrees at the part nearest the light and 180 degrees, a 'glancing' light, at the edges. Even a diffuse light on the subject-camera axis will demonstrate this effect: look at the picture on the right.

10  differential reflectivity (texture)

This is perhaps the fundamental trick for shooting white-on-white. Even where the subject and background (or several white subjects) have identical or near-identical brightness under diffuse frontal lighting, they are likely to have quite different reflectivities and textures: think of a sheet of writing paper, an egg, glossy china, flour, salt, or indeed the light bulb at the head of this module.

Do not neglect the possibility of changing the texture of the subject by spraying it, for example with water from a perfume spray or plant mister; with commercial 'dulling spray' sold for studio use (and widely used with silverware); or even with white spray-paint. Another useful trick with shiny metal or paint surfaces is leaving them in the refrigerator or freezer for a while: when you take them out, they will be dewed with condensation...

You can use differential reflectivity in a number of ways, either directly (by moving the subject, light or camera) or indirectly via 'bounces' (#11 below).

Here is a white plate on white paper with white flour at the back. Between the white flour and the white beans are white sugar and white rice. On the lower left of the white rice is white cornflour; to its right and below it are white salt. At the bottom is white baking soda. The plate is side-lit and was photographed with a Nikon D70 and Vivitar Series 1 90-180 Flat Field lens.

11  black and white bounces

A 'bounce' is a sheet of almost anything, either highly reflective white or dull black. One of the most popular materials for white bounces is expanded polystyrene: ceiling tiles, insulating material from builders' merchants, and even recycled packing materials. Another material for a 'white' bounce is aluminium kitchen foil, crumpled up, smoothed out, and stuck to a sheet of cardboard or plywood: crumpling it up helps to diffuse the light and avoid 'hot spots'. Black bounces are usually sheets of plywood painted with blackboard paint, though self-adhesive black flock and even black velvet are also widely used. With the right paint you can make an expanded polystyrene bounce that is black on one side and white on the other, but a lot of blackboard paints dissolve expanded polystyrene.

Bounces have two uses. As light modifiers, they either reflect light (white bounce) or absorb it (black bounce). This can be useful in dealing with white-on-white but more often for this purpose we are more concerned with a secondary use, reflecting the bounce itself from the subject to give bright or dark reflections.

The shinier and more reflective the subject, the more effective the bounce, so this is particularly effective with surfaces like matte chrome, which all too quickly disappear in 'white on white' shots.

12  harder light

The more diffuse the light, the less clear the boundaries. Hard, directional light -- a smaller source, or further away -- will almost always show up edges better than diffuse light that is bigger or closer or worst of all a 'wrap-around' light such as you would get inside a half-dome made of opal Perspex, Lucite or something similar.

A very diffuse light, achieved with a white polystyrene bounce either side of the camera and another sheet of thin white expanded polystyrene over the top of the two bounces to create a diffuse 'cove'. Like the picture on the right this was shot with a Nikon D70 and the levels and colour balance were adjusted to be as good as could be achieved in Adobe Photoshop.

A much harder light, a 20 inch (50 cm) reflector with a diffuser cap over the bulb, allows more contrast and better tonal differentiation, plus a much brighter, clearer background. We have deliberately left in the dark corner, which could easily be removed in Adobe Photoshop and which would be far less obvious if the picture had been shot on film rather than digitally.

13  moving the subject

Rotating the subject will often change the angle at which the light strikes a particular surface, thereby improving either the differentiation of the subject from the background, or the internal differentiation of the subject itself.

14  moving the light

As with the subject, so with the light. Back-lighting can be surprisingly effective, especially if you arrange a white bounce (see above) on one or both sides of the subject, just out of shot, to reduce the overall contrast.

This is the same egg as in the still life at the top: the closeness of the colours and tones of the egg and the backdrop are abundantly clear and the differentiation on the upper right is negligible -- a classic problem with the one-eyed camera.

Harder side lighting, and bringing the light nearer to the camera -- look at the highlight on the egg -- has introduced the limb effect (see above) and created a more useful shadow.

A useful trick is to outline dark against light and light against dark, here achieved by backlighting the egg from above (check the highlights and shadows again) and shading off the background with a piece of black card

15  moving the camera

Raising or lowering the camera, or moving it to one side or the other, is yet another way to exploit differential reflectivity. If you draw a perpendicular line at right angles to the surface of the subject, the angle of reflection (relative to that perpendicular) is identical to the angle of incidence (the angle at which the light strikes the subject). Obviously you don't need to move the camera at first: just close one eye and move around until you get the best angle, then set the camera up there.

The first shot is quite hard to read: most of the shape of the projection towards the front has to be filled in by the brain.

Cutting the exposure by 2/3 stop makes the whole thing somewhat easier to read.

Twisting the adapter slightly takes greater advantage of the different angles (and therefore the different reflectivities) of the various faces.

16  retouching

This is a more desperate approach, but today with Adobe Photoshop and similar imaging programs it is a good deal more feasible (and easier to do unobtrusively) than in the days of manual retouching. In particular the 'burn' tool in Photoshop, run along an edge with inadequate differentiation, can be extremely effective. So can a very weak drawn line: set a pale grey, rather than a black.

17  sharpening

Yet another imaging program option. In Adobe Photoshop either 'sharpen more' or 'unsharp mask' may increase the differentiation from the background; in the latter case, a high value (around 100 per cent) and a reasonably large pixel radius (as much as 6 pixels) will give a suitably dramatic effect. As with any electronic 'filter' it is important to avoid overdoing it.

18  cutting out

In the Bad Old Days this was done either physically, with a scalpel, then glueing the cut-out onto white paper, or by masking the subject and then spraying the background white: when the mask was removed, the subject was against a white background.

Today it is normally done electronically and much more quickly. It is often, though not invariably, a good idea to use a grey or even black background, easier to see than white when you are cutting out. Coloured backgrounds are easier again to see, but can result in odd-looking coloured reflections and colour casts in the subject.

 

 

SEI LED Photometer The picture on the left is a competent enough white-on-white, but the cut-out picture on the right exhibits better differentiation and would be easier to integrate with text in a layout. The cut-out was achieved in a couple of key-strokes with the Adobe 'Magic Wand' tool.

the bottom line

The thing that surprised us most when we set out to write this module was how difficult it was to find real problems with white-on-white. Partly this is because it is a problem that Roger first had to confront over 30 years ago, in the 1970s, and therefore solves almost instinctively, but it is also because it is a problem that always arises unexpectedly, like a rake in the grass that springs up to hit you when you tread on it. In any case, armed with the suggestions above, you should be able to overcome the vast majority of white-on-white problems when they arise.

 

 

This still-life is much the same as the one at the beginning, but rather more softly lit. It relies very much on the different reflectivities of the various components, and on the use of shadows: a complex white-on-white composition, with hard, directional lighting (here from the left with a Photon Beard focusing spot), is often easier to handle than a plain, simple shot like the Ilford film-box.

 

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© 2005 Roger W. Hicks