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Tip 1: Use a backdrop

To show your bonsai to the best of its potential, you need to remove distracting elements from the background. The best way to do this is to use a backdrop. I usually use black velvet so I'll focus on that here --- but other colors or fabrics may be equally appropriate. Photek makes nice backdrops in a range of colors; duvetyne fabric reportedly provides very nice light-swallowing black at a relatively low price.

Color. A black backdrop makes the tree "pop" out, whereas light colors provide a softer, more balanced look. In the Kokufu albums, black backdrops are used primarily for flowering trees, and occasionally to highlight the white bark of deciduous trees such as beech or the white deadwood of junipers. An off-white backdrop is used for the majority of the trees.

Position. I position the backdrop at least 5 feet behind the tree, for two reasons. First, the distance makes it easier to keep my reflectors or light sources from throwing light on the backdrop. Second, the backdrop will be out of focus when the tree is in focus - and thus little lint marks, creases, etc., are less likely to be visible.

Photography setup

Exposure. Using a black backdrop confuses the light meter on most cameras; the meter expects a scene to be roughly 17% grey instead of the much darker value of a black backdrop. If you don't correct for this, you'll end up with a photograph where the tree and background are too bright, or "washed out." To compensate underexpose the image by using a shorter shutter time (or small aperture) than expected. I typically get good results by under-exposing by 1.3 to 1.7 stops.

If you are using a white backdrop, the light meter also gets fooled, but in this case the problem is reversed. If you don't correct for it, you'll end up with an image where both tree and background are too dark. To compensate, you'll need to slightly overexpose the image by using a longer shutter time (or larger aperture) than expected.

If you'd rather avoid the problem than compensate for it, you can use a neutral grey or blue backdrop. These colors are usually close enough to the expected 17% grey that you will not need to adjust your exposure time.

A cheap alternative. For those of you who don't want to invest in a stand and photographic backdrop, there are cheap alternatives. The picture below was taken using a one-dollar piece of blue posterboard, bent into a rounded curve.


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Last modified December 29, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Carl T. Bergstrom