Monday, October 05, 2009

Taking Great Photos. Part 6: Setting the Stage

A few weeks ago, in this epic saga on "Taking Great Photos" - I mentioned that it was important to declutter the background have the photo focus on the object, without a distracting background.

I have also discussed lighting, and how to correct for poor lighting, but I also said that this does not mean you shouldn't have good lights.

Today, I'd like to go into that in more detail. Let's talk about Setting the Stage. And building it too. ;-)

Some folks like to shoot outside on a cloudy day, some find a nice north-facing window. Others go for bright sunshine, or the controlled studio setup. All are valid - it just depends on the look you want. I loathe set-up and take-down - and I can't afford to wait for the weather - so I have a dedicated corner with a permanent set-up for my photography.

In considering lighting, we have a couple of things to think about: Shadows and Reflections.

For every light - there is a reflection, and a shadow.

Mostly what we are thinking about photographing for our purposes (jewelry, beads, etc) are hard and glossy - and tend to have multiple reflections - one from each light source.

I personally don't try to get rid of all the reflections and shadows, and I like to use them to help define the surface and the shape - but you don't want them to be distracting, or confusing - or at the most extreme - misleading.

Other folks like to have their items appear to be floating in space - in a formless void - no cast shadow, no reflections. At the most extreme - some people will actually submerge the item to be photographed in a shallow dish of water to completely eliminate reflections. Try it sometime, just for fun. It works - but it also flattens and distorts colours, and I don't care for the look.

In order to eliminate reflections, or, at the very least, soften them, you will need to diffuse your light sources - which is to say - if you shine a bright light on a shiny object, you will get a harsh, obvious reflection off it, but if you soften and diffuse the light - say by putting a sheet of paper over it - the reflection will be less hard-edged and obvious. Think of a roomful of table lamps with, and without lampshades, and it become clear that the lampshades diffuse the light and make it the room more attractive.

In order to reduce shadows, you need multiple lights, and at the most extreme case, you can put a softly lit panel under your object to completely eliminated cast shadows.

Also - don't forget about ambient light. A photo tent and lights set up next to a window will give you different lighting at 10 pm from 10 am.

And finally - wear a neutral colour. Your clothing will reflect off the items you are photographing. Try explaining to a customer that the pink dots they saw in your picture were reflections of your t-shirt!

Reducing Reflection

The first way to reduce reflections is to reflect the light - shine it on a wall or ceiling - then the reflected light is illuminating your picture - this is called "bouncing" the light.

Alternately, you can diffuse it. I now use a white nylon tent for this purpose, but even a sheet of paper over your light will do this too. A white sheet, a translucent white plastic bucket, the white translucent plastic panel from a fluorescent light fixture are all excellent diffusers.

Of course - the more you diffuse, reflect and disperse your light - the less of it overall gets to your subject - which gives you less to work with in the end. This is why photographers start with bright lights - so there is enough left over by the time it gets to the subject.

More diffused light also creates softer shadows. Instead of the hard edge shadows, you get softer, subtler shadows.

And then there is the "stage" itself - what you actually put the item on.

My first "stage" was 3 pieces of white plastic, each square and about 12 inches on a side. One was the floor of the stage, and the other two were taped together at 90 degrees. The lights were set up on the outside of the "wall" and the object sat inside. On the upside - it folded up into virtually no space at all when I wasn't using it - and it was easy to clean. On the downside - sometimes it fell on my subject!

Here's some ideas.

I currently mostly use a grey, polished acrylic stand - designed expressly as a photography surface. These can also be purchased in clear, black, white and gold. (See end of article for examples).

I also sometimes use an illuminated panel - to eliminate shadows and add background light - more on using this in a later installment.

If you want to use a fabric background - frequently the texture - even of fine silk - can overwhelm the item to be photographed. Place the fabric on the bottom of your set-up, and set up a glass shelf, a few inches above it, so that the item you are shooting is floating above the fabric. This will soften the focus on the fabric and reduce the appearance of the weave of the fabric. This glass will not show, and you will still have the appearance of the item sitting on the fabric.

A contrast is nice too. I particularly like using slate - an old, salvaged roofing tile, scrubbed up. I even used asphalt though, to good effect.

For standing up beads that don't want to balance upright on a flat stage - use a tiny piece of wax or clay to hold them upright. Position the wax or clay support so that it will not show.

There are also specialty backgrounds, printed sheets and painted backdrops - even for the small scale that we are working with. I particularly adore using a "sweep" - which is the seamless backdrop that sweeps from under your item and up the back and out of the picture - that is shaded from white to dark grey. This gives a tremendous sense of depth to the picture.

One more thought - tiny specks of dust will be attracted to your stage - and will not appear to be too big an issue - until you view the image enlarged on your screen. I keep a swiffer refill handy and wipe away the dust frequently.

Here's some examples.

On a shiny black background.

And the same object (a completely excessive lampwork bead watch - in my private collection) - on the reflective gold background.

Directly on the shade grey "sweep."

On the shiny, grey stage.

On a slate roofing tile.

On an illuminated panel.

By the way, you can purchase these stages, the nylon tent and other related items at

Next week - black, white, and glowing all over.


tinkerbell said...

What an awesome article. This is a topic that has frustrated me to no end, but I've been procrastinating about investigating the subject. Now I'm inspired and will go back to the find the other 5 parts of this article! Thanks so much for the info, photo examples and link.

Lynn P.

dragonjools said...

Look for the Monday posts. I'm milking the heck out of this topic. ;-)

Genevieve said...

Great series of articles. I recently bought a tabletop setup from Henry's Photo and I'm very happy with it.