Saturday, April 24, 2010

Photographing Reflective Objects

A number of years ago, I heard a really interesting analogy:  If you can photograph a shiny toaster, then you can effectively photograph a car.  I’ve been mildly interested in experimenting with photographing cars, but never really knew how anybody went about creating the nice soft white lines on shiny surfaces, while minimizing reflections.  It wasn’t until I saw a car shoot in a studio, that I realized what the secret was (large foam core panels angled to create reflections by bouncing light angled from indirect angles).  It is not that you are trying to “hide” reflections, but merely creating the reflections.  Here’s what I mean:  The lines that you see in cars or other reflective surfaces (think sunglasses, wine bottles, and football helmets) are actually reflections of the light sources, coupled with strategic uses of angles of incidence.  Go ahead and google photos of sunglasses and wine bottles right now.  I'll wait.

For those of you too lazy to look it up, here is a shot of some sunglasses I did:

Ok.  Notice the reflections.  (You can usually see the edge of a table in the sunglasses, wine bottles usually show one or two long reflections on either side to create the shape, and football helmet photos usually show a large square softbox reflection on the upper corner). 

A few days ago, a friend and I were having a discussion about photographing jewelry, and minimizing reflections in the subject.  It reminded me of the toaster analogy I had mentioned above.  At home we have an extremely shiny toaster, rivaling a mirror in reflectiveless), and I have wanted for years to try my hand at lighting that thing because it looks almost impossible to shoot without getting myself or my living room in the reflection.  Well, this conversation a few days ago inspired me to go ahead and take that challenge.   Here’s how I did it.  But first – a few words about my typical “product” setup.

I have photographed a number of tabletop items over the years (mainly as photos for selling products on ebay), and my formula is generally the same.  I start with two foam core panels.  One is for the “floor” and the other is for the “back wall.”  I then light the product from one side (and will sometimes use a third foam core panel on the opposite side for fill).  The reason I light only one side is to allow the shadow on the opposite side to create the shape of the object.  Many people resort to buying the “photo studio in a box,” or shooting tables, but personally I think they are impractical, sometimes expensive, and unnecessary.  Grab some foam core, a desk lamp, and you’re in business.  Sometimes placing a plexiglass panel below the product can yield some nice reflections.  I got mine from a bathroom mirror (you know- the plastic that is typically placed in front of the glass of mirrors to prevent taggers from actually etching their gang names on the glass). 

Anyway, the photo of the Ipod is shot with three panels of foam core (bottom, back wall, and reflection).  Notice the white reflection in the screen of the angled foam core.  I lit this with one speedlight on camera, bounced directly off the “reflection” board.

The Toaster:

This thing is basically a mirror that toasts bread and has to be one of the most challenging things to light.  The secret is to find the right angle of incidence (imagine shooting a gun at an angle, and trying to predict where the bullet will ricochet).  Use this principle to find an angle that won’t reveal your own reflection in the object. 

The Setup:

The background paper is simply butcher paper extended from the top to the bottom, all the way up to the other side.  This essentially creates the “back wall”, “the bottom”, and the “front wall.”  There are two more pieces of foam core on either side to complete the “box” and also to be used to create the indirect lighting.  Because of the highly reflective nature, it is impossible to photograph the object head on.  See the photos below.  

You’ve got to shoot it either at an elevated angle (and the reflection becomes the “floor panel,” or shoot from the side (and the reflection becomes the “side panel.”  The other trick is to create a wall around the front to mask most of the room reflections (turning the reflection into the entire white “box” you’ve essentiall created, and shoot from a corner – which is exactly what I did. 

This was lit with three lights (one on each side, diffused through the “front wall” of paper, and bounced directly off the walls.  There is also a top lighting source to eliminate shadows on the background. 


So here is the final result.  Now you know how it’s done.  If you ever want to photograph a car, just apply these same principles on a much larger scale.  I can now cross the shiny toaster off my list of things to shoot.  You should give it a try!

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