“Lighting Shiny Surfaces for Quality Photographic Images” by Philip Cohen
November 17, 2011
When taking photos of objects or jewelry with shiny reflective surfaces, catching the right light may seem like a difficult challenge or just a matter of luck.
Shiny surfaces reflect light like a mirror, possibly creating excessive or unwanted highlights. What is reflected could be anything in the room that surrounds the work. What can be done to gain control of the lighting?
Good news: There is a very simple solution for photographing most shiny surfaces: use bounce cards to light the object with soft white light.
In today's post on ASK Harriete, Philip Cohen takes us through a 16 step example of lighting an object with a shiny reflective surface. For this tutorial, Philip Cohen used a portion of my recent Seder plate for TuBishvat. By following his step-by-step process using foam core or cardboard covered in foil you can bounce soft radiant light onto your work.
The light source can either be photographic lights or outside on a bright but overcast day. Practice will help you repeat his success. This step-by-step tutorial was originally presented at Forging Communities.
On the left is a photograph I took to illustrate the worst possible circumstances for photographing art or craft. Taken outside, the bright sun produces harsh shadows with a blue cast. Even though I used the camera flash for fill light, the top is still dark, muddy, and off-color. Overall, the photo has a blue cast which you can see in the background (which was actually white foam core).
Even worse, the gold background of the Seder plate does not have a golden metallic color. The variation in color, pattern, and texture from the tin cans is lost with too much contrast from the strong light.
In the next 16 photos, professional photographer Philip Cohen will demonstrate easy steps anyone can duplicate for lighting shiny surfaces.
The background is a white paper available from photographic supply stores.
Step 1. In this photo, my Seder plate is sitting on the seamless white photographic paper background. The darkness of the unlit studio is reflected in the sides of the Seder plate. The piece looks dull.
Step 2. Looking closely it is easy to see that the golden metallic tin cans look dark.
Step 3. The white foam core in the upper right corner "bounces" reflected light onto the top of the Seder plate. The mirror-like surface on the top of the Seder plate reflects the soft white light from the foam core.
Step4. In this photo, the top of the Seder plate is properly lit, but the front of the Seder plate is still dark.
Step 5. In this photo, another foam core bounce card is added to the left corner. This reflects soft white light onto the front of the Seder plate.
Step 6. As the bounce card in the front adds light, experimentation and patience may be needed to get just the right result. The next few photos vary slightly as the front bounce card is moved around.
Step 7. In this photo, note how the lighting makes it look like there is a dent in the center front bottom. (There is no dent there, but awkward lighting is making the tin surface look dented and puckered.)
Step 8. Fine adjustments are needed until the unintended shadows are eliminated and the lighting shows all the patterns in the gold metallic tin. The lighting is soft to avoid brilliant washed-out highlights.
Step 9. Now the lighting on the front is perfect.
Step 10. Here (in the left lower corner) you can see the front bounce card clamped to a pole that bounces light onto the front of the Seder plate. The bounce card in the upper right bounces light onto the top of the Seder plate. Now we need to bounce some light onto the dark right side of the Seder plate.
Step 11. Each of the sides is lit one at a time. The reflecting foam core is moved around, in or out, left or right, and with a slight tilt one way or the other. Twisting and turning the bounce card also controls the amount of light until it is just right.
Step 12. Slight nuances and changes until the lighting is perfect.
Step 13. Next step is working on the left side. It still looks a little too dark.
Step 14. Adding light on the left side.
Step 15. And with a little refinement, just right.
Step 16. There are four bounce cards lighting this Seder plate. Top right, far right, bottom left, and a small metallic foil-covered cardboard in the lower-left corner.
Side by side comparison of Seder plate in Step 1 and Step 16.
The flat sides of this piece are good for this lighting illustration, but the same ideas work for any shape of object or size to be photographed. Just keep trying new angles.
Keep in mind that you need to be looking at your subject from the exact position of the tripod-mounted camera.
The "money shot" or final shot:
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriyah
© 2011 Harriete Estel Berman
Photo Credit: Philip Cohen
Since 1988, the use of post-consumer recycled materials has been a core premise of my work. This interpretation of the recycling symbol covered in metallic gold tin cans creates a platform for the three types of fruit used during the Tu Bishvat Seder service.
For Assiyah, a pomegranate branch symbolizes the fruit where only the inside is eaten.
For Yetzirah, an olive branch represents fruits where only the outside is eaten.
For Beriyah, a silhouette of figs and fig leaves includes images of apples, pears, and grapes, fruits where all parts are eaten.
The center star is a profound symbol of Judaism subtly presented as a radiating light. Within the concept of Tikkun Olam and our observance of TuBishvat, we repair the world through our actions.
Post-consumer recycled tin cans, 10k gold rivets, sterling silver rivets, aluminum rivets, brass screws, Plexiglas.
The Plexiglas tops are designed for functional use of this Seder plate so that fruit or nuts will not be in contact with the tins.
Approximate dimensions: 6” H x 24” W
This post was updated on February 15, 2022.