If you need digital photographs of your products for eBay, pictures of an engine part for a user manual, or pictures of heirlooms for an insurance company, a simple studio lighting setup will make the pictures better. You can eliminate flash glare and background clutter at the same time you improve the photograph’s detail. Yes, you can edit images later, but good lighting and backgrounds saves time.
Unless you are a professional with demanding clients, you don’t need the sort of studio shown in Illustration 1. Halogen work lights or desk lamps are adequate, widely available, and far less expensive then lights sold for photography studios. In a pinch, high-watt incandescent lights work. Fluorescent lights are the least usable, because they require the most color correction. Avoid tinted lights unless you are photographing weird scenes and special effects. I was forced to take some pictures under strong yellow light once, because the product was light-sensitive, and the color correction was extremely difficult.
A temporary lighting setup can be constructed on a small table, file cabinet or the floor. The size and number of the lights varies with the size of the object, but the basic setups are as shown here. The lights might be halogen reading lights for jewelry or 400-watt halogen work lights for a motorcycle. If the object cannot be moved, bring the lights and the backdrop to the object.
2-light Basic Setup
Lighting from an angle, as shown in the first illustration, minimizes shadows. Move the lights until the object looks good in the camera’s viewfinder. If you want shadows, use one light. You can use reflectors to bounce light into the shadow areas if you want to minimize them. Glare will tend to be reflected back at the lights and not into the camera lens. Illustration 2 shows the components and their position for the simplest setup.
3-light Back-lit Setup
Backlighting brings out the three-dimensional quality of objects. Commercial product photography often uses this. The only hard part is making sure the light aimed at the backdrop does not show in the picture, nor does it cast a shadow on the backdrop. Illustration 3 shows the position of the third light. Illustration 4 shows a large vase photographed with the 2-light setup. Illustration 5 shows how the backlight makes the head of the parrot vase stand out. If I remember this shot correctly, the backlight was a flashlight taped to a chair.
There are two common variations of this setup. In the first variation, the back-light is behind a translucent backdrop, shining toward the object. In the second variation, the back-light is behind and below the object, shining up to illuminate the backdrop.
3-light Back-lit Setup with Diffusers
Diffusers minimize glare and shadows when you are photographing metals, glass, and extremely dark objects. You can use diffusers on one or all of the lights in the setup. Experiment to see what looks best.
Be careful with the choice of material for the diffuser. White paper or plastic works, but can burst into flames if the lights are too hot. Illustration 6 shows the position of the diffusers between the lights and the object.
One way of holding a diffuser in position is to hang a small clamp from the ceiling and clip a sheet of diffuser material in it.
Inexpensive Backdrops, Reflectors, and Diffusors
Backdrops: The backdrop can be any plain, light-to-medium colored surface. Professional photographers use huge rolls of colored paper or build a curved section of wall so the object looks like it is floating. There is no visible angle where a wall meets a floor. They change the color of the paper, or slap a coat of paint on the curved wall as needed. Illustration 7 appears to have been taken against this sort of studio backdrop because of the way it floats.
Because I often take photographs in an uncontrolled environment such as maintenance shops, I have used lab coats, FAX machine paper, sheets of plywood, or cafeteria-style trays to block background clutter. It is easier to blur a solid background than to edit the photo to delete a guy in a striped shirt.
Medium tan or grey backdrops tend to make any object look good. White interferes with a camera’s auto-exposure detector, and it’s hard to get a picture of a black background that doesn’t have lint on it. If you want to make a dramatic product shot, use a color that contrasts with the object.
My usual backdrop for small items is a small bit of tan, faux suede fabric on a tilted tray. The suede has a matte texture that doesn’t collect lint. Unlike cotton, it doesn’t wrinkle either, so I don’t have to iron it. Illustration 8 shows a necklace on the faux suede. Larger items are usually photographed in front of a strip of one-ply corrugated cardboard. It is convenient to store and can be purchased in various widths. Illustrations 4 and 5 show a large vase against this backdrop.
Reflectors: Something white or metallic placed near a shadowed area will reflect a small amount of light into the shadow. If the shadow should be lightened more, aim a strong beam of light onto the reflector. Colored reflectors can add interest, or they can add strange colors. Experiment with them.
Diffusers: Diffusers soften the shadows and highlights on an object. Any white or translucent material can be a diffuser. Colored diffusers can be used for special effects.
For photographing shiny jewelry or small metal parts, I place the jewelry in a translucent plastic container and aim the lights through the walls of the container. Larger shiny things are placed inside a structure made of PVC pipe and covered with something of the right size, such as white fabric or a vinyl shower curtain.
Practice With Your Studio
Don’t wait until the afternoon you want to photograph 43 teapots and list the pots on eBay. Collect the materials and practice with the lighting and backgrounds before you need them.