Lesson Of The Month
Controlling Impossible Reflections
Lighting Techniques To Get You Out Of A "Hot Spot"

Photos © 2003, Ben Clay, All Rights Reserved

Most studio photographers would agree that lighting and photographing highly reflective objects can be extremely challenging, particularly curved objects like this turtle that mirror everything in the room. Since your lights will show up in objects like this, you need to be able to control their reflections so as not to draw attention to them in the shot. Here, we'll look at a few lighting techniques that will help you tackle such lighting challenges.

As with any product shot, it is important to take some time to consider what type of background you want to use, as this can make a big difference in your final result. Since the turtle I was shooting here was so reflective, I thought it would work well to accentuate this attribute by using a reflective background surface. And since the turtle's silver finish was light in tone, I decided to use a black reflective background to create a tonally rich, dynamic look.


Easy Setup
My set was fairly simple and quick to put together. I set up two sawhorses in the corner of my office, placed a 4x2 ft sheet of plywood on top of the sawhorses for support, and placed a 4x4 ft sheet of Plexiglas over the plywood to serve as my background. I also placed a sheet of black foamcore against the back wall to reflect black into the Plexiglas. I then mounted an Olympus E-20N digital camera on a tripod, placed the turtle on the Plexiglas and framed up the shot.

Next, I set up a Medium Photoflex Starlite Kit on a boom and started out by placing it about 2 ft directly above the turtle. In the camera, I set the exposure mode to Manual; the focusing mode to MF; the ISO to its lowest setting (80); and the resolution to TIFF. I also created a Custom White Balance setting to match the color temperature of the Starlite Kit (3200K).


I set the aperture to f/8 to get an adequate depth of field, set the shutter speed to 1/40 sec, focused and took a shot (#1).

In the resulting shot (#2), you can make out the reflection of the softbox in the center of the shell of the turtle and see that the reflection in the Plexiglas is very defined. In addition, there are several areas of the turtle that are too dark to make out clearly, including the head and the rest of the shell.


Get Closer With Your Light
To increase the amount of light reflecting into the top of the turtle, I simply lowered the softbox to within 6" of the Plexiglas and checked through the viewfinder to see the effect. The top of the turtle was now completely reflecting back the overhead softbox and the overall shape was much more defined. Because I brought my light source in much closer, the light level became significantly brighter, so I increased the shutter speed to 1/60 sec to compensate for exposure and took another shot (#3).

The result (#4), although greatly improved over the previous shot, was very dramatic in that it consisted mainly of black and white shapes, almost like an illustration. While images such as this can be visually arresting, they can also be a little too stark for those who want to see a more lifelike rendering.


Double Diffusing
To reduce the contrast of the shot I decided to diffuse the overhead light even more by placing a Photoflex 39x72" LitePanel frame in between the turtle and the softbox. I placed one end of the frame on the back end of the Plexiglas and used a LiteStand and a Main & T Clamp to support the front end of the frame at about a 20Þ angle. I then positioned the softbox at the same angle as the LitePanel and placed it over the rear section of the frame to illuminate the reflection of the LitePanel fabric (#5 and #6).


Since the LitePanel frame cut about a stop of light, I slowed the shutter speed down to 1/30 sec and took another shot (#7).

Notice now how the background has become a neutral gray. This gray section is actually the reflection of illuminated LitePanel fabric overhead, and it allows us to make out the shape of the turtle more clearly. It also softens the edges of the reflections in the shell as well because the light cast onto the LitePanel has a smooth gradation to it.


The only part of the shot that was still too dark was the underside of the turtle. Rather than adding a second light to the shot, I chose simply to place the softbox over the front end of the LitePanel in order to throw some light underneath the turtle (#8 and #9).

Without changing the camera settings, I took a final shot (#10).


The final result reveals more detail in the underside of the turtle and overall the shot is tonally well balanced. The background has darkened somewhat due to the repositioning of the overhead softbox, but this only helps to make the turtle stand out from the background. Also, notice that the gradation of light in the LitePanel fabric is reflected nicely into the shell of the turtle, giving it a better sense of dimension.

As you can see from these various lighting setups, there are many ways you can go about lighting and double diffusing reflective objects. By experimenting with your lights, you will be better able to achieve the look you're after.


Manual Exposure And Image Preview
I typically figure out the appropriate shutter speed by reviewing the exposure on the LCD. First, I'll set my aperture to determine my depth of field, and then use the built-in light meter to estimate the approximate shutter speed. I'll then take a shot and review the exposure. After a while, you get familiar with how the light levels on the LCD compare to the light levels on your computer screen, and become more confident with your exposures, minimizing the need to bracket, and better yet, eliminating the need to use a handheld light meter.


Technical Equipment
Camera/Media: Olympus E-20N digital camera; Olympus 512MB CompactFlash card; lithium polymer battery pack; tripod
Lighting: Photoflex Medium SilverDome softbox; Photoflex Starlite Head and 1000w lamp; Photoflex Starlite Connector; Photoflex Boom; 2 Photoflex LS-2232 LiteStands; Photoflex 39x72" LitePanel frame; Photoflex 39x72" Translucent LitePanel fabric
Background: 4x4 ft sheet of Plexiglas; 4x2 ft sheet of plywood; 2 sawhorses; 30x40" sheet of black foamcore

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