Light Fall-Off


Today’s Question: I was reviewing your photos on 500px, and was struck by the one of cabbage in South Korea. How did you achieve the dark background in that photo where it looks like only the cabbage is lit?

Tim’s Quick Answer: The photo in question can be found here:

The photo represents an example of a situation where the light illuminating a subject “falls off” and does not illuminate the background. This was the result of the layout of the scene where I found the cabbage on display, along with the existing lighting conditions.

More Detail: I imagine most photographers are familiar with the style of photographs where a subject (often a flower) is illuminated by flash, and the black backdrop is rendered as a pure black with no texture. These photos are often the result of a technique where flash is used to illuminate the foreground subject, with the flash not being strong enough to illuminate the background. The use of a black backdrop obviously helps make this technique a little easier.

The cabbage display I photographed on Jeju Island in South Korea represented a similar scenario. There were a row of buildings on the street at a public market, and most of the buildings had an awning of some form that covered the entrance to the building. Most of the goods on sale were placed outdoors, but under the awning.

In this particular case the cabbage was on display right at the edge of the awning. It was an overcast day, so soft light illuminated the cabbage, providing a very even overall look without excessive contrast. That soft overhead light wasn’t able to illuminate the area under the awning behind the cabbage, so it was very dark in the background.

In this case I was fortunate to simply happen upon the cabbage display, so there was no need to interact. I do like the photograph, but I don’t think I would have ever had the idea to stack cabbages into a pyramid and light them in a way that provided a dark background. Fortunately for me, in this case the scene was created by others for my benefit.

However, this same overall concept can be used for a wide variety of photographic possibilities. To be sure, you can keep an eye out for scenes that have similar lighting situations without the need for supplemental lighting. But you can also create a similar effect through the use of carefully placed lights and a scene that results in only a key foreground subject being illuminated.

Photographer Joyce Tenneson created some wonderful portraits of flowers that exemplify the technique referred to above in her book “Intimacy”. You can find that book here: