Black Foam Core Projects

One of my favorite "tabletop" macro / close-up photography projects involves the use of black foam core board and strategic lighting angles. My seashell collection looks especially nice against the black background. It celebrates the interplay of light & shadow and makes for a very enjoyable rainy day activity!

My motivation behind these types of shots is to create the impression of interesting deep space objects emerging from the blackness of outer space.




3. Use of mirror, of course!

4. Eye In The Sky


6. Illuminated

Tilman Paulin

Vancouver B.C.
Real Name
Great work! I might use/copy/steal that idea for seashells, if you don't mind :) (we just moved to Dublin recently and my wife started to collect shells)

For a similar "studio-effect" we have used dark black-out curtains draped over a chair to good effect. (-> move a chair to the window to get to the curtains + you get nice window light :) )
Tony, those are fantastic. Do you have a "making of" shot? Or could you direct an amateur to a link showing how one might achieve such great results....or maybe you could do one.
Hello Luke,

Thank you. I'd be very happy to share this information. The free exchange of information remains the lifeblood of a thriving photography community! :)

Neat. Some of them look like they are glowing
Thank you, and yes, #6 from the first set is indeed glowing because it's being illuminated from the light source underneath the shell. I'll continue to identify them as "Illuminated" immediately after the image number.

Great work! I might use/copy/steal that idea for seashells, if you don't mind :) (we just moved to Dublin recently and my wife started to collect shells)

For a similar "studio-effect" we have used dark black-out curtains draped over a chair to good effect. (-> move a chair to the window to get to the curtains + you get nice window light :) )
Thank you for commenting. Yes, there are many methods that will yield similar results. Black foam core board was something I simply decided to try, found it worked well and that was that!

I'll look forward to seeing how this specific seashell project works out for you and your wife and I'll always be happy to offer any tips or advice along the way!

Black Foam Core Projects

I'm certain there exists many creative methods that will yield similar results. I'm providing the methods I use to achieve these types of shots and I hope this information proves helpful should you decide to give it a try. I'll include a couple of my favorite flower shots using the same techniques I use for seashells. Flowers are a great way to practice and learn the importance of strategically lighting the subject to achieve the most dramatic effect.

When these "tabletop photography" projects turn out well, the photos can convey a sense of time consuming, technically demanding "studio" shots, suggesting the use of exotic lighting equipment. Yet in fact, these photos were taken on a card table and the room needn't be terribly dark to create these types of images. Fast shutter speeds and high aperture values along with generous amounts of negative Exposure Compensation provide enough reduction in ambient light to make that so.

I use sheets of black foam core board, one of which has a small hole punched through it. I place the seashell directly on the foam core and I hand-hold a high lumen flashlight or a Clamp Light with Aluminum Reflector to light my seashells. Foam core board can be found at most art supply stores or online, of course.

For my "illuminated" seashell shots I place the shell over the hole in the foam core and light the shell from underneath. For this effect I use a LightPad. Of course, it works best with "thin-walled" shells.

I place the seashells on a small mirror, then the mirror on the foam core to achieve the wonderful reflection style images. Very challenging!

With my flower photos I can even preserve the flower, stem and all, by passing the stem through the hole, take the shot, then return the flower to the vase whence it came! :)

I use a tripod, select Macro Mode and frame the shot by means of the LCD. Enabling the 10 second self-timer allows me enough time to aim the light source and experiment with various angles until I see the desired effect I want in the LCD. If I'm using my Canon SX50 then I'll temporarily DEACTIVATE the Image-Stabilization, which is recommended in the manual when using a tripod. I just have to remember to activate it before I go back to my preferred bird photography!

The critical factor is simply finding the best angle from which to light the subject. For a polished seashell it can take a few attempts to minimize "hot spot" reflections on the shell from the light source. In my case, I don't want to work any harder than I have to in an effort to completely eliminate hot spots so I don't use shades or attempt to diffuse or bounce the light and I don't mind a little shine on the shell. I simply position the light source at the angle that produces the most dramatic effect. I find the most pleasing and dramatic results come from "side-lighting" the seashell. I rarely hold the light source directly above the seashell, for example. Also, finding the best angle helps prevent the black foam core from being easily detected. Even if the foam core appears in the initial capture, that can easily be corrected in post by decreasing the "Levels." This style of "side-lighting" of the subject is how I use natural sunlight to begin the process of creating my bird photographs that feature a black background. Working with early morning or late afternoon sunlight, in this case.

I use Photoshop Elements 12. During post-processing the tool I use the most is "Levels." I decrease the levels until the black foam core goes completely black. Occasionally, I'll need to select Auto Levels or adjust Shadows / Highlights to allow the image to really "pop." I don't do these black foam core projects too often so if the seashells have been on display and the foam core stored away, I make extra sure they're completely dust-free. Since these are lighted macro shots every flaw or speck of dust will be captured!

I'd always be happy to provide further instruction if you so desire!

Best regards,

1. Floral Fireworks




Atlanta, GA
Real Name
Currently going over space stuff with the 9yo and have a stack of NatGeo books out that probably weight more than she does. These fit in well.

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