How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items

Started Jul 23, 2011 | Discussions
Justin Varuzzo
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How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
Jul 23, 2011

I appreciate all advice in advance, over the years from time to time I come here when I have a problem and always leave w/ great advice and answers!

I'm looking to know how professional product photographers shoot large catalogs of items.

I run the online division of a music store and we sell many used instruments. The pictures below of the flute in the case, and trumpet with white background are examples of pictures I took my time with, than heavily edited in photoshop (knocked out, brightened, white balanced, etc).

I took all of the pictures in the same tent, w/ the same lights. It's a large tent about 48" wide, 24" deep and about 24 inches high. I built it out of PVC pipe and use a plain white bed sheet I drape over the top and sides, and another I lay down on the surface and loop around to the front w/ a slit for the camera lens.

I'm happy with the flute picture below, but I think a professional would take a picture much closer to that without much editing. I suspect my lights are not bright enough for such a large tent.

The main hurdle I'm overcoming is the pictures where the background is visible are one-time use photos for used items. We simply cannot invest the time to crop and edit each one (we take on average 8-12 photos of each used instrument).

My goals I'm looking to achieve are as follows:

1) I'd like a way to eliminate the "clarity" of the sheet (wrinkles, etc). Suspend the instrument somehow? Prop it on something? Someway the background can be blurred out more.

2) I'm having a very tough time getting the pictures bright enough. You can see the sheet looks gray in the pictures, when I lower shutter speed the instrument gets blasted out (overexposed) yet the sheet still looks gray.

3) I saw a table that was plexiglass w/ a white backdrop, however it had no sides, top, or back, which makes photographing reflective items impossible or difficult.

I don't mind investing some money in equipment that will improve the pictures, but I want to make sure I'm not compensating my amateur photography skills by spending money.

I'm sorry for the lengthy post, I just want everyone to understand how I achieve what I do so it can be better in the future.

Thank you again for any advice.

slowhands
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Re: How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Jul 23, 2011

Beg, Borrow or Buy the book
Light, Science and Magic
to better understand the properties, physics and photography of light

and of course how to deal with the challanges caused by objects placed in that light..LOL

it is the training manual.

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Peter Berressem
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Re: How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Jul 23, 2011

I'd simpllify your goal. Show glossy spheric objects, as the trumpet, in a natural surrounding where the reflections are "practically explained".

Any attempt to achieve a "neutral" appearance (re: reflections) is very, very lavish and time consuming. For your "second hand item sales" usage I wouldn't go that far.
If you can, check out a book that treats this field very well:
Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting (Fil Hunter)
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Justin Varuzzo
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Re: How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
In reply to Peter Berressem, Jul 23, 2011

I am definately going to order the book you've both recommended.

It does seem to delve into exactly what I'm looking to learn.

I guess my most important immediate goal is to figure out how to make white look white.

If I take a picture of my photo tent with nothing in it it will appear gray. I can boost in photoshop and bump up the brightness or overexpose the shot from the get go to make it look white.

How can I get the white to be bright white, w/ out overexposing ANY object I'm photographing in the tent?

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Kent Johnson
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Re: How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Jul 23, 2011

Get a piece of white plexi and place a strobe beneath it (this has its own challenges but you'll figure that out).

Use a sweep of white paper instead of a sheet for the BG.

And do get the book mentioned above. It's the bible for this sort of thing.

Kent

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Darrell Spreen
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More post-processing ideas
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Jul 23, 2011

Justin Varuzzo wrote:

1) I'd like a way to eliminate the "clarity" of the sheet (wrinkles, etc). Suspend the instrument somehow? Prop it on something? Someway the background can be blurred out more.

Something other than a bedsheet should solve most of these problems. I'd recommend either a white foamcore board or bright white background paper.

2) I'm having a very tough time getting the pictures bright enough. You can see the sheet looks gray in the pictures, when I lower shutter speed the instrument gets blasted out (overexposed) yet the sheet still looks gray.

Maybe you're not so far from what you're trying to achieve. The overexposure can possibly be solved with a different pp technique. I hope you don't mind, but I took the overexposed shot of the trumpet and adjusted the gamma in my image editor which preserved the white background (it measures 255,255,255, so it's pure white) but made the trumpet look more normally exposed.

If you want me to remove this adjusted sample I posted, let me know.

BTW, you need to pay attention to the reflections -- they can be very distracting.

It's always better to get the exposure right when you take the picture, so the recommended book is still a good idea, especially if you don't want to devote much time to post-processing.

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Justin Varuzzo
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Re: More post-processing ideas
In reply to Darrell Spreen, Jul 23, 2011

I don't mind at all - it definately looks better having used that technique.

The reflections are tough, I'm looking forward to the book. That was taken in a tent 360 covered. If you look at the bell of the trumpet you can clearly see the reflection of the ligth BEHIND the sheet. The apparatus right next to the light is actually the reflection of the trumpet itself reflecting back at the bell. You will see that in any picture of a trumpet.

Interestingly, the picture you edited, although it looks much better I was already quite happy with as is. Which leads me in another direction. I apologize in advance if it is not "kosher" - but could you post a few pictures, or links to picture from Google Images of a trumpet that you think is an excellent shot?

I actually find many professional shots of trumpets to have an unsightly, un-natural black strip through the entire instrument (I'd guess they are shooting against a white panel in a dark black room). By wrapping all angles in white it eliminates the black strip but creates an un-natural finish in the opposite direction, the picture appears dull.

For example a picture like this has too much black reflection:

http://t3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSrmxo6P7gW7kNhbWos417dR-GOnh_AcFVnwicblZJLl8Hb317WVA

This is a stock photo of a trumpet from a $2bil company for reference, pretty much perfect:

They seem to have a nice blend of a thin black reflection that isn't as aggressive as the picture above.

What are your thoughts?

Thanks,
Justin

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Darrell Spreen
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Re: More post-processing ideas
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Jul 23, 2011

Justin Varuzzo wrote:

Interestingly, the picture you edited, although it looks much better I was already quite happy with as is.

I thought yours was a nice result too, but you expressed some concern about the appearance of overexposure and I knew that could be addressed with additional pp.

I actually find many professional shots of trumpets to have an unsightly, un-natural black strip through the entire instrument

It takes some work to get that black strip -- it is one of the techniques that is considered important in photographing shiny objects (jewelry, for example). It shouldn't detract from the image, however.

They seem to have a nice blend of a thin black reflection that isn't as aggressive as the picture above.

What are your thoughts?

Yes, that's the idea. The black results from placing black light-absorbing materials near the shiny object or near the camera in order to create more contrasty reflections that show shape and shine. You'll notice that photographing a shiny object in a light tent can make things look a bit "flat". Product photography uses a lot of "tricks" to get an image that is instantly attractive.

Sorry, I don't have any examples to post at the moment.

regards,

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Darrell

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24Peter
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Re: More post-processing ideas
In reply to Darrell Spreen, Jul 24, 2011

Justin - I actually think your trumpet shot is the best of the bunch (don't like the underexposed version which doesn't really address your problem with reflections anyway.) Get Light Science Magic, but the bottom line is, good product shots often require a lot of time and trial & error, esp when dealing with highly reflective objects. Unless you really enjoy learning this, you may want to farm it out to someone who shoots professionally.

In terms of your particular lighting issue, the ideal is often to light the background separately from the subject. This way you can blow out the background to white but have a properly exposed product. Depending on what your shooting, this can be quite challenging. A trick that may or may not work in your case is to get a large piece of clear Plexiglas® , place the product on top of the Plexiglas® and then place white paper below/behind the Plexi.product and light the paper and object separately.

It also sounds like you're using continuous lighting. Tough to get a lot of output that way. Strobes (flash) are much better.

Finally, light tents are not always the answer, as they can create issues of their own. Sometimes you're better off with a roll of white seamless paper, a shooting table and a few pieces of white/black foamcore. On the other hand, as you discovered shooting the trumpet, with certain items you need full coverage to control reflections and a tent may be the only way to get that.

Anyway if this is your interest/passion go for it. Just understand that even if you're good at this, it may still take time & energy to make it work for a particular group of products.
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marin
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Re: More post-processing ideas
In reply to 24Peter, Jul 24, 2011

For pure white, there are 2 ways to achieve it:

  • A reflective floor, e.g. "tile board" or plexi on white paper, and a light source some way behind the object, like a soft box or a white background overexposed with flash.

  • A translucent floor, like matte plexi, lit from underneath.

Everything else will just be a total pain in (the:) post. I helped shoot a catalog of around 400 items once (took half a day) and we used a glossy white table with a softbox behind it to blow out the whites - and they need to be blown out, or you will spend more time in photoshop than behind the camera.

HTH,
Marin

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anolphart
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Re: How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Jul 24, 2011

Ditto on the Light Science & Magic book!

If you are using continuous lighting, remember that the light meter in your camera measures everything at 18% grey, so if you take a reading of a predominantly white background it will come out grey. Try getting a reading off a grey card as that will in most cases be the correct exposure for the product.

Ideally, as 24Peter said, try to light the background separately and brighten it by about 1 – 2 stops above the exposure required for the product but be careful not to make it too bright as it will blow out the edges on the instrument.

As far as the black reflections are concerned, I agree that some black adds punch to the photos otherwise the product can look very dull.

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Ho72
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Re: How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
In reply to anolphart, Jul 24, 2011

While you wait for the book, take a good look around on these sites:

http://www.akelstudio.com/blog/tabletop-photography-i-like-creative-shot-for-anisa-international/#more-3074

http://www.pixiq.com/article/product-photography-tipstricks-shooting-glass-on-black

They're both maintained by the same guy (Alex) who also posts here from time to time. D

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odl
odl
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Here is how they do it :)
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Jul 25, 2011

Hey Justin,
You are on the right track, but just to throw in my 2 cents...

A light tent is great, but does create some very flat imagery. Placing some well thought strips of foamcore (black) possibly wrapped with black velvet fabric (if you really want jet black areas). To show the "mirror-like" finish.

I will add that i have always found it easier to use while paper on a roll, draped down over a table and sheets of foam core propped up and placed well.

Remember that similar shaped objects should be shot together and will all benefit from the same light setup. SO Trumpets are all shot together etc.

The shot you showed from the other company, the trumpet (thingi) was shot sitting on its "horn" end then rotated in post. The black strip is where the photographer was, he has two sheets of foamcore sat on either side of the trumpet and closing in as they come forward (leaving just enough sace for the lens OR if that is too narrow, whatever gap gives the nicest black strip) and two more overlapped and crossing behind that.

Their size depends on his space, smaller sheets in smaller spaces are easier but harder to position your lights around... anyways, it is either that, or he has a "high end" light tent, one that doesnt show wrinkles

But back to the foamcore, if you get the paper, the foamcore and some lights you can grid or snoot, and aim them into your setup to bounce off the foamcore into you product (the grids and snoots also reduce spill) and blast one at the background (again gridded to reduce light wrap-around)... you should have pictures that need little or no PP and will look very nice.

he first example here was BUCKETS of PP and i did a whole set of these with little need to move the alternating black and white foamcore... the second was far less and i blew out the background to make is fade to white.

The last one is in a light tent, as it was for a much simpler application. The tent was from ebay and had a slit I stuck the lens through, which resulted in a black dot which i removed in PP.

Good luck
Ab

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DecibelPhoto
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Well....
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Jul 27, 2011

You're asking a couple of different questions here.

How do professionals do it? Rarely with a light tent. People seem to think that these are the solutions for shooting shiny objects. They can help, but you still need to learn to use them. A professional would consider where they want the highlights and dark areas to be on the shiny surfaces that would best render their shape, and then place light and dark surfaces at angles to the object that would reflect on those areas of the surface. The dark areas are just as important as the light ones. Read that book everyone keeps recommending.

However, the main issue you seem to be concerned with is how to limit your time shooting each picture, and more specifically how to avoid cutting the pictures out while maintaining a pure white background. This is a completely understandable concern, and one that many people deal with. Although there are numerous ways to light shiny objects on pure white, the ones that work the best are all time consuming. So let's keep it simple.

Your objects should be placed on white semi-transparent plexiglass that is lit from below. This is how you will get a pure white background without Photoshop. If you still want to use a tent, you will have to build one around this plexi (you built the one you use now). They make tables specifically for this purpose, although you can just make one yourself as well.

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Justin Varuzzo
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Still at it!
In reply to DecibelPhoto, Aug 10, 2012

It's been over a year ago since my original post.

I did read the book suggested and it brought to "light" (no pun intended) a lot of great information.

I also took the suggestion to ditch the sheet (looked terrible) in favor of the whiteboard. Immediately pictures were greatly improved just virtue of the glossy reflective property of the foam board.

Instead of "encompassing" the sheet around the tent, I use another piece of foam board in front of the object (between the camera and object) - however, instead of punching a lens size hole in the board, I chose to shoot down at a 45 degree angle, and using 3 lights (left, right, top), I sneak the camera between the front board and top light and this provides the black strip I was looking for (and I thank the poster who provided insight as to how the other photographer shot his trumpet!), I didn't realize it.

Here are two newer examples - the first photo is piece from a flute. Not perfect (you can see my hand in the reflection), whish I had a large dark room to shoot in as opposed to a small white office that reflects everything even with the lights out!

The trouble I'm having with the first picture below is a matter of the "greyish" background. It's easy to punch it out when the object is dark just by overexposing the shot 1 to 3 steps (depending on item). However, in this picture if I get the background to pure white, the flute becomes terribly overexposed. I'm guessing the solution is a light UNDERNEATH the object as was suggested here (just havn't made the investment yet for plexiglass and a 4th light).

The second picture was of a silver trumpet, I was able to achieve the the black strip I was looking for (looks very similar to my sample from last year), however the background on this one was far worse. That was still in the sheet days so I had to crop it out manually (and did an awful job).

Unfortunately, this is not my full-time job, so a few times a year I can devote a couple weeks to product photography. Overall, dark objects come out amazing in my current setup (see the last picture) - the only thing done was this was an "auto color" in photoshop as the background had a color balance issue.

I'm using compact fluorescent (6-bulb) 24" softbox lights, inexpensive kind from ebay. For some reason, regardless of my white balance setting, at best I get white with a hint of blue when I shoot certain things.

Again, just wanted to give a little update, I wish I had a year more of experience, but it's really a few weeks.

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Justin Varuzzo
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Re: Still at it!
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Aug 10, 2012

One other thought/note - the foamboard scratches grey just looking at it!! (exscuse the scratches in the background).

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Justin Varuzzo
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Re: Still at it!
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Aug 10, 2012

This is a more recent photo of the silver trumpet using the whiteboard background. However, in dealing with the overexposure issue this was more carefully cropped in photoshop.

I'd of been happy with this picture, but all of the tarnish and fingerprints were invisible to the eye, and suddenly came glaring out on the big screen!

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Re: Still at it!
In reply to Justin Varuzzo, Aug 11, 2012

Justin Varuzzo wrote:

It's been over a year ago since my original post.

I did read the book suggested and it brought to "light" (no pun intended) a lot of great information.

I also took the suggestion to ditch the sheet (looked terrible) in favor of the whiteboard. Immediately pictures were greatly improved just virtue of the glossy reflective property of the foam board.

Instead of "encompassing" the sheet around the tent, I use another piece of foam board in front of the object (between the camera and object) - however, instead of punching a lens size hole in the board, I chose to shoot down at a 45 degree angle, and using 3 lights (left, right, top), I sneak the camera between the front board and top light and this provides the black strip I was looking for (and I thank the poster who provided insight as to how the other photographer shot his trumpet!), I didn't realize it.

Here are two newer examples - the first photo is piece from a flute. Not perfect (you can see my hand in the reflection), whish I had a large dark room to shoot in as opposed to a small white office that reflects everything even with the lights out!

The trouble I'm having with the first picture below is a matter of the "greyish" background. It's easy to punch it out when the object is dark just by overexposing the shot 1 to 3 steps (depending on item). However, in this picture if I get the background to pure white, the flute becomes terribly overexposed. I'm guessing the solution is a light UNDERNEATH the object as was suggested here (just havn't made the investment yet for plexiglass and a 4th light).

The second picture was of a silver trumpet, I was able to achieve the the black strip I was looking for (looks very similar to my sample from last year), however the background on this one was far worse. That was still in the sheet days so I had to crop it out manually (and did an awful job).

Unfortunately, this is not my full-time job, so a few times a year I can devote a couple weeks to product photography. Overall, dark objects come out amazing in my current setup (see the last picture) - the only thing done was this was an "auto color" in photoshop as the background had a color balance issue.

I'm using compact fluorescent (6-bulb) 24" softbox lights, inexpensive kind from ebay. For some reason, regardless of my white balance setting, at best I get white with a hint of blue when I shoot certain things.

Again, just wanted to give a little update, I wish I had a year more of experience, but it's really a few weeks.

You can't do it all in the studio. Especially in product photography, post-processing is essential.

If you want a white/silver subject like the flute against a white background, you have to isolate the subject from the background and expose each separately. It's possible to do that in the studio, but it is far simpler and faster to do it in post. The trick is to expose for the subject and fix the background in post, so you get a result like this:

Learn post-processing (or sub it out to someone who knows what they're doing). As you're discovering, if you globally crank up the exposure enough to make the background pure white -- regardless of whether it's done in the studio or in post -- that wipes out definition and detail in the subject. But if you isolate the subject from the background and expose for the subject, you can do anything you please with the background in post.

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madecov
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Re: How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
In reply to slowhands, Aug 11, 2012

I'm no pro, but I picked up a few 5500K compact fluorescent lamps and shop reflectors.
cost was under $30.00 for the whole rig.
a small roll of white seamless off Amazon and this what I got.

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Re: How do professionals do it? Product photography of shiny / reflective items
In reply to madecov, Aug 11, 2012

madecov wrote:

I'm no pro, but I picked up a few 5500K compact fluorescent lamps and shop reflectors.
cost was under $30.00 for the whole rig.
a small roll of white seamless off Amazon and this what I got.

Nice work, and it illustrates my point about post-processing. You exposed for the subject and didn't didn't try to force the background to pure white. In post, you can now easily correct the color cast, isolate background from subject, and make the background pure white (or some shade of gray, add gradients, etc.) without blowing out highlight details on the flashlight.

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