Low budget and black velvet

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One item required by all pro photographers is a large roll of black velvet. This initially ‘strange’ item has many uses, including what I like to call “low budget special effects” photography and is the subject this week.

When I say “low budget”, that is exactly what I mean. In my personal library I have books that claim to do just this and then go on for one chapter about the “low budget” equipment required – like an enlarger, registration table with registration pins, copy stand and photo floods and studio strobes. If that is “low budget”, then I will walk backwards to Bangkok with a lighted gas stove on my head!

However, it is possible to produce many special effects photos without having to purchase expensive equipment, work with slides only or have studio strobes. The first item you need is a roll of black velvet, and you can source this at any tailor shop. Get about three meters.

Black velvet really is a very important part of photography, and in my studio, I used to keep several meters of the stuff. Why? Because it is one of the easiest ways to introduce some very different effects into your photographs.

The secrets behind the use of this material include the facts that it is non-reflective, so it does not affect exposure values when taking the shot and shadows do not register on it. Mind you, fluff, dust and dirt does, so you have to keep it scrupulously clean!

Because it does not affect the image recorded by the camera, this makes black velvet the ideal material to use as a background when you wish to combine images, or do other special effects.

Here are just a few ideas you can do with black velvet. Simple double exposure becomes very easy with this material in the background. Set your camera in the double exposure mode (or if you have not got one, select “B” for time exposure). Position the subject to one side of the picture and pop the flash to take the shot. Now reposition the subject on the other side of the picture and shoot again. You will have two perfect shots on a perfectly black background. (For those using the “B” setting you have to have the room dark and the camera on a tripod. Cover the lens between taking the shots to stop extraneous light coming into the camera too, but it is possible to get excellent double exposures in this way.)

Another use for black velvet is in making pictures of light trails. These can be very spectacular special effects pictures and are very easy to make. Stick the black velvet on the ceiling and suspend a torch from the center. With the camera facing upwards and set on time exposure, twirl the torch and record its movement for ten seconds or so. You have just made a totally original print!

Photo montage is another simple effect you can produce, using the black velvet as the background. Here you let your creative self run riot. You can produce any picture you want, whether it be yourself standing on top of the Statue of Liberty or three elephants standing on a beach ball – you are in total control!

With this type of special effect you have to cut out the elements you want from other pictures, be they prints or magazine photos or whatever. Cut carefully and then run a black felt-tip pen around the edges (See why? It will sit on black velvet!) and you are ready to combine all your subjects.

Put your composition (photo montage) together and positioning your camera above the montage, look carefully through the viewfinder. This is how the shot will look, remember. Reposition any items at this stage. Next important item is to keep the camera back parallel with your background as this will keep all the elements in focus. Now shoot!

If you find the direct flash gives you a reflection problem, you can use household “floodlights”, one each side at 45 degrees to the surface. You will get a “warm” colour cast, but since you are producing “surreal” photographs, it does not really matter. Have fun this weekend!