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John Siskin

Lighting Large Products

By John Siskin
Published by Amherst Media

Is it bigger than a breadbox? In this excerpt from his Amherst Media book, John Siskin explains how to light and expose product and still-life subjects that won't fit on your shooting table.

This excerpt from Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.





There is more to shooting large products than just backing off your lights. Large products are often not just big; they’re also heavy. I had a machine that I had to get into the studio that was so heavy the wheels sank into the asphalt in the parking lot.

If you want to shoot a lot of big products, you will want a big studio. You can also shoot big products on location, but you will need to see the space before the shoot. It can be a big problem if you show up to shoot a product but can’t do it well in the space available. Remember that a large light source for a large product needs to be, well, large.

The image below is a heat-sealing machine. It is about 6 feet long and 4 feet high. The important characteristics of the machine are the orange logo color, the client name, the sliding shelf that serves the oven, and the dials. The most difficult thing is the stainless steel, because it reflects the details of the lighting. Remember that the client is coming to us to help him communicate information about the product, so you want to find out what is important. For me, the first step in setting up a product shot is to establish the location of the camera and its orientation to the product.

Stainless steel is hard to light. It reflects everything in the room, so large light sources are essential.

This product was very difficult to move because it was heavy and marked up the seamless backdrop. I used the gauges and the printing on the side of the orange oven to find the right position. Remember, it is important to think your shot through. This saves a lot of time and trouble.

Here is the lighting diagram for the heatsealing machine.

In order to create a shot that will show this product in a good light, I needed a large, soft light source. In this case, I made a large wall from foam core. I bounced the light off the wall to create a gradation on the stainless steel. The reflection off the foam core is very smooth. In this case, I used two light panels, with umbrellas, to light the long side of the product. This ensured that this side was very evenly lit and had minimal shadows. A very large light source can practically eliminate shadows, but only when it is very close to the subject or very large. In this case, the light source was about 7 feet wide and was placed just a few feet from the product.

I also used an umbrella and light panel at camera right. This made the right side lighter than the front of the machine and helped define the shape of the product. Finally, I had light coming in on one side of the background. This created a little gradation on the background. I should mention that I used a 12-foot wide gray seamless background for this shot. It works well when I am photographing large products.

Now, let’s move onto another large-product shot. This was the last bike that Steve McQueen (born 1930, died 1980) owned. It was restored for the new owner. The motorcycle is in fantastic shape and was a real joy to photograph.

I thought this shot through before starting. I decided to use a black plastic drop cloth on the floor. I knew that, after moving the bike around, the plastic would look better than seamless paper. I used a 12-foot gray seamless on the back wall. We needed a big background and shoot area for such a large bike.

Before I began shooting, I established the camera-to-subject relationship. I needed to make sure that the background would surround the bike. A slight angle was chosen to highlight the front fender, as the fender design is a distinctive feature of all Indian motorcycles.

A paper wall was set up behind the bike. Setting up a tent like this is difficult.

This is a 1947 Indian motorcycle. Motorcycles have many shiny, spherical parts, which makes them hard to light.

Shooting any motorcycle is difficult because of the shiny spherical surfaces made up of both glossy paint and chrome. These surfaces reflect light directly into the lens. If we were to light the bike with hard direct lights, it would be covered with hard, specular highlights and very dark areas. Obviously, very large, smooth light sources were needed to make this image work.

I used a 9x30-foot piece of white seamless paper to create a wall between the camera and the bike, determined where to cut a hole in it, and then had an assistant cut the hole, keeping the “window” for the camera as small as possible. Next, I spread the light on the new wall. Although seamless paper is usually used as a background, it did the job.

I have several moveable, wooden poles mounted on the ceiling of my studio. I mounted some lights with Manfrotto Super Clamps and compendium arms. The lights were pointed at the white seamless wall, away from the bike. This instantly gave me a very smooth light on the motorcycle! I had essentially made a tent around the bike.

Next, I placed another light behind the bike to create a gradation across the background. This light had a blue filter on it. This light produced a pastel blue light behind the subject, with a circular falloff. The light is pastel because the blue is mixed with the white light reflected from the gray seamless, and the falloff is created by the spot pattern of the light.

I added one more light on the left of the bike to illuminate the ceiling and the left side of the white seamless. This was a case where barn doors were very important. This placement put additional light on the seat and the back fender, both of which needed the help.

The Indian shot is an example of photographing a large reflective object in a large tent. A tent is basically a white container that surrounds the subject. There are numerous ways you can build one yourself, and they are also commercially available. Don’t be afraid to get creative: when I am photographing small objects, my tent is actually a laundry hamper from Ikea.

The basic principles behind shooting very reflective subjects, from motorcycles to jewelry, are the same. You need to light what the subject reflects more carefully than you light the subject. If you think about the subject as a mirror, you’ll understand why this is the case.

I used this setup to photograph the watches shown below.

There are a variety of ways to light a tent. If you have a small tent, you will light it from the outside. If you are shooting with a large tent, you may actually have the lights inside the tent. If you light from inside the tent, its material doesn’t need to be transparent, as you will be bouncing the light off the inside of the tent. You do not have to light a tent evenly; you can light it from one side to create a gradation in your light. Any time you can set up a tent, or even a partial tent, you will be able to use it to shoot a lot of products very quickly.

I was able to shoot these and several other watches very quickly using the same setup.

Category: How-To
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