PenInHand - Musings on the Hobby

Basic Black

by Jim Mamoulides, January 31, 2004

Using black as the background for a shot creates a sense of richness and depth that is hard to come by with other colors. Because of all the brightwork most pens have, it's also one of the most difficult backgrounds to photograph. With the wrong setup, detail can be lost, too much lighting can wash out the pen, too little will muddy the picture.

Basic Black
Waterman Etoile

Black also tends to call out what's right and wrong about the shot set up, because the eye is drawn into the the visible elements of the picture much in the same way the moon draws your eye in a clear night sky. Using the night sky as an example, a bad shot will emphasize the moon. A good shot will draw out the stars from the black background. A great shot will frame the sky with the silhouettes of the trees and draw out the subtle color from the stars, wisps of cloud, and haze. Black is a real challenge.

Basic Black
Waterman Etoile

I've recently done a lot of "black work" because I like what it does with certain pens. Gold and silver pens are especially difficult because of the high contrast between the bright pen and the black background. To set up these shots requires white balancing the whole shot first and then shooting a long series of shots at different exposures to get a range to choose from. I usually set the f-stop to the highest setting and the ISO to the lowest and then step through the shutter speeds several steps above and below the ideal metering presented by the camera. Generally, the camera wants to overexpose the shot because the meter is overcompensating for the bright foreground object, so the better shots tend to be underexposed, with the exception of close-up detail shots.

Basic Black
Sheaffer Snorkel Autograph

Another challenge is adding the right elements to the shot to make it more interesting. To really test this, I chose two black pens, on a black background with black objects, in this case, a glove and a wallet.

Basic Black
Waterman Opera

With all these black objects in the shot, it was clear that the pen would get lost and only the brightwork would show up, so I decided to accessorize the shot with an opera ticket. This foreground item added brightness to the shot and pulled the pen out of the shadows. Using a chased pen added some spice to the shot.

Basic Black
A Detail Shot Hero 100, Hero 616, And Parker 51

I've also been playing with Photoshop tools to bring out interest in a shot. Sometimes a familiar object gets a fresh look by "playing" with it. Almost all pen collectors will recognize a Parker 51 snout. Shooting a brace of them against a black background was just not very visually interesting.

Basic Black
Detail "Watercolor" Shot Of Hero 100, Hero 616, And Parker 51

To "spice up" the shot, I used the watercolor tool in Photoshop to add back some texture that the 51's design doesn't have. It's still a 51, against a black background, but now the pens are the center of the visual, putting back interest in an otherwise bland shot, and using black to de-emphasize the background elements, so the pen becomes the center of attention.

If you are doing pen photographs, take some challenges. Experiment with different things. Take lots of shots so you can learn more about the camera and its settings.

Most of all, have fun!

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