Controlling Reflections: A Tutorial by Jeff Creech Featured

Sphere Vs Circle

One of the most important characteristics for a commercial photographer to possess is a strong understanding of how to control light. We use light to add shape to the objects we are photographing, whether that be people, cars, or products. The quality of the images we produce largely depends on our ability to light that object to show its shape effectively. Take for example - a sphere.

Without proper lighting, a sphere has no dimension. Let's assume that both objects above are spheres. The sphere on the left is illuminated by a light directly in front (similar to a standard camera flash). The lighting is harsh, direct and reveals absolutely nothing about the shape of the object. For all we know, it could just be the top of a cylinder.

The object on the right, however, is clearly a sphere. We can even identify where the light source is in relation to the object (the top left). We can conclude these facts because of the direction and shape of the gradient that runs across the length of the object. As photographers, it is important that we exert masterful control over these gradients.

Controlling Light vs. Controlling Reflections

But what about a situation, where the object we are photographing mostly reflects the light that we are directing towards it? How would you reveal the object's shape in the example above, if it were chrome?

Everything we have ever learned as photographers about lighting an object does not apply when the object is reflective.

This creates an obvious problem because most objects we photograph have a reflective component to them. Cars (especially those with dark paint) are covered in clear coat and are notorious for being highly reflective. Chrome and metals, such as in jewelry, watches, or cosmetics are obviously reflective. Even transparent objects such as martini glasses or beer bottles have a reflective component to them.

To understand how to light these reflective objects effectively, photographers must apply an entirely different set of rules.

Light the Environment, Not the Object

Reflective objects by definition, reflect what is around them. To properly show the shape of a reflective object, we must therefore light the environment - NOT the object. This is the golden rule of photographing reflective objects.

To help illustrate this point, let's test how various light modifiers and lighting setups affect the shape of an object. For this example, I've decided that the object will be a aluminum reflector from my Alien Bee Lights. I chose a reflector because it's aluminum, which has somewhat of a luster finish to it. It's reflective, but not to the same level that a mirror would be. It's also cylindrical, which means I don't have any corners to deal with when lighting the product.

Each photo contains a final image and a setup shot.

Three-Point Lighting

For non-reflective objects, the Three-Point Lighting system is the foundation of any photographer's bag of tricks. It consists of a key light, a fill light, and an edge light. In my example, I've substituted an edge light for a background light. The lights have standard reflectors on them, but are otherwise completely bare with no additional light modification. The result is hard, direct light that does little to show the shape of the object.

Not optimal in any sense of the word. We can do much better.



Diffusion Panel vs Medium Sized Softbox

In the next example, we have a similar light arrangement, but on the left we've added a diffusion panel and on the right, we've substituted the standard reflector for a medium sized Softbox. The left side of the product (the side lit with the diffusion panel) looks decent. We are beginning to see shades of a gradient, but the gradient is hard to control. There are clearly two different shades, but the edge between the two shades is fairly sudden. Regardless of where I pointed the reflector, the gradient would always come out similar. This is because the reflector on the light is not very directional. It's more like a shotgun, as opposed to a rifle.

The right side of the product (the side lit by the Softbox) is even less desirable. The softbox creates very diffuse light, but the light is uniform across the length of the softbox. This creates hard edges on the highlights of the product.

The diffusion panel clearly wins this battle.



Diffusion Panel + Strip Box vs. Strip Box

In this next example, I wanted to test if adding a strip box to the left side would help me control the gradient better. I decided to move the position of the light on the left closer toward the rear of the product, allowing me to cast a gradient with a highlight starting near the edge of the product. The strip box allowed me to cast a thin strip of light on the diffusion panel (as opposed to a giant spot light that we observed with just the reflector). Depending on where I positioned the light I could easily change the direction and strength of the gradient on the diffusion panel. So far, this was the best method.

The right side of the product is a strip box without the diffusion panel. The strip box is great at creating thin highlights on a product. I actually like the highlight in this case, but the midtones on the right side of the product are kind of bleh!



Twin Edge Lights with Black Cards

Let's change the lighting setup a bit. I kept the strip boxes on each light, but moved each of them to the rear of the product. Since the strip boxes are now pointing towards the camera, I needed to use black flags to block any light spill from hitting the lens. Because the background is white and we didn't want the edge of the product to blend in with the background, I also used black cards to create a low light.



Putting it All Together

Now that we understand the various ways that light modifiers affect the lighting of a reflective object, let's put it all together to create a finished image. My favorite look was the stripbox combined with a diffusion panel. It offers us the most control over the shape and direction of the light on the product. Because the object I'm photographing is a cylinder, i found it best to use a symmetrical lighting setup. I placed diffusion panels on each side and lit the diffusion panels with strip boxes. I then used black cards behind the product to define the edges more clearly.



So just remember the next time your trying to photograph a reflective object. It's not the object that is of concern, it's the environment.

Jeff Creech

Louisville, KY based commercial photographer specializing in food & beverage, product, and automotive photography.



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