Table top lighting primer : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Now that the snow here in Minnesota has arrived my photo work moves from the plains and prairies to the indoors. (Lived here all my life, still can't stand winter.) I have done a limited amount of table top photography and would like to do more. Subjects are small artifacts such as machine parts, gears and the like. I have a couple 500 watt halogen work lights that I have used during remodeling projects. I have several hardware store variety clamp lights with relfectors. I have a few 24x36 inch sheets of diffuser gels. What I need is some guidance on how to make use of this stuff to produce the best photos. I seem to get either very flat lighting or too much highlight. Are there any on-line sights with good information? Are there any books recommended? Most of the lighting information I have turned up on line relates to portrait or fashion work.

-- Dave Schneider (, November 27, 2001


I'm with you on this winter in MN thing -- every year when the first snow falls I start checking out real estate prices further south.

I'd check out Light - Science & Magic by Fil Hunter (Southdale Library has a copy if you are in the metro) -- this one will be great for helping you deal with reflections. The Photographer's Studio Manual by Michale Freeman has a lot of info on just tabletop work with a pretty good lighting section. Secrets of Lighting on Location by Bob Krist also has a lot of good lighting information in it that is equally relevant on location as in the studio.

Good luck and keep warm!

-- Jennifer Waak (, November 27, 2001.

A good thing to do is to suspend your diffusion flats above the subject with a slight feather towards the background (angle the diffusion up towards the camera... maybe on a 30 degree angle). What you will also have to figure is angle of incident of the light for your highlight control. To make life easier, get a large (read LARGE) sheet of foamcore and instead of shooting through a diffusion flats, set your lights close to camera reflecting into your sheet of foamcore. This will give you a beautiful and very controllable large highlight (especially on shiney objects). Have the foamcore about 1 foot over the product (just out of camera view). Don't forget to use type L film or an 80A filter. Almost anything can be used as a background to enhance your products. Something else to think about...

-- Scott Walton (, November 27, 2001.

The best lighting theory book around is Ross Lowell's "Matters of Light & Depth". Especially if you're interested in using continuous light careful with your halogens and using diffusion materials. We use a whole bunch of scrap sheets of gatorboard (the stiff version of foam core, comes in solid black and white sheets as well....thicknesses up to an inch, a great product), we have small & large mirrors as well that we use in the our shop we use 4x8 sheets of plex that's backed with silvered mylar foil....this makes a great mirror that's indestructible....and can be cut to fit any need.

One type of lighting that works nicely for tabletop product work, is to backlight the object, and use mirrors/cards to bounce fill light back into the front & sides. This will give you nice halo type foram around the piece....if you shoot onto a sweep, you can use cards to feather the light off the background, by moving the cards around, or just angling the light right, you can get a nice gradated background this way.....use your mirrors to kick in nice specular highlights for shape & form. It's usually preferable to show one direction only to your shadows because there's only one sun in, angle the mirrors or mask off the bottom portions with black tape or rosco foil (blackwrap) to keep them from skimming light onto the tabletop. Uhm, lastly judge all lighting from the camera position---put your head at the lens, or use the ground glass---having a dark studio or shooting area is a big help. Even if this means just doing it at night....

If you backlight, be sure to use gobos/flags to keep the flare off your'll never have too many stands or clamps in the studio......that's a crash course I guess....for your small metal objects, they'll require a different type of lighting than say a wooden object....but really, the best thing you can do to get started is to just play around with the lights and see what works best for you. good luck.

-- DK Thompson (, November 27, 2001.

Regards the caution to be careful with the halogen lights and diffusion materials, do you mean just because of the heat and fire risk or is there some other issue? I know these halogens get hot but then again so does a 250 watt photo flood. The halogens work lights seem to offer a good source for lots of light. It may be hard to control it however since these designed to illuminate a large area. Perhaps some ad hoc barn doors from black foil would help.

In my previous attempts I found that the the loss shooting through diffusers and off reflectors left me with pretty low illumintation levels. I am shooting with a view camera so F16-22 is where I need to be, not F2.8-4. My previous attempt had a 2x3 foot diffuser above the subject with the photo floods a foot above the diffuser. White card reflectors to fill in the other side. Perhaps what I was missing was the mirror to create the highlights. I have used aluminum foil relfectors to try and create highlights and that showed some promise.

Thanks for the information and assistance.

-- Dave Schneider (, November 27, 2001.

Yeah, it was like a CYA disclaimer so you wouldn't burn your house down...seriously, I've worked in both all tungsten studios, and all strobe...we use a combination of both where I work now. But in the form of studio strobes like Speedotron and hotlights like Lowell Omnis, Totas, Rifas and some old Mole Richradson stuff....even a studio strobe puts off quite a bit of heat when it you need to be careful with all that stuff, especially if you're going to be covering it up or trying to flag it off....a Tota Light is a 750 watt max. quartz broad faced have to use it oriented on it's long side to dissapate the heat off the thing, and you use metal flags and barndoors close, but not too close to the face.....same with diffusion materials like Rosco tough spun, etc.....these are all used about 12 inches or so away from the lamp, but in a frame....and even then, they can warp up or get a little distorted.....any time you start diffusing or bouncing a light around, you'll loose some of the intensity....

When you shoot with a view camera and use hotlights, even big fresnels or banks of strip lights, your exposures are not in the seconds...they're like 5, 10-15 minutes.....everything is locked can walk across a set in front of a camera and not even register on the film....and likewise, you can do things like move lightsources or cards around and "dodge" a's a different type of studio work.

If you shoot this way, make sure that you use the right color balanced film for color, of course, and also make sure that you're on a rock solid surface. Don't shoot on carpets, second floors, in buildings next to roads with alot of traffic etc....99% of the time, when we shoot in the studio, even with strobes--we don't use the shutter....our studio is completely flat black. We just turn out all the lights, pull the darkslide, wait for the camera to settle out and then expose throuugh multiple pops....with hotlights, what you'd do would be to just use a card to mask off the lens....alot of studios work this way. Lift the box off the lens carefully and start your stop watch.....

If you're shooting small items, bellows factor will add up too....I learned to light with fresnels and hotlights, and it is easier to "see" what you're getting with them, but you may actually find something like a focusing spot or a fresnel keg light a better choice, than just a broad type fixture. Because you may need about 1-2000 watts worth to pull off a shot. Like a whole overhead bank of them. Maybe four all on a strip spaced out. If you had enough ceiling height, to safely get them up, you could construct a bank of them and then lay out a scrim or a flat of tough spun or some fire retardent diffusion material underneath on a hanging frame ( with some distance between)....then by angling this around, you can control the light a bit. Like a softbox. The use your mirrors, or if you had a small focusing light, use it as your main...this overhead is for the fill....

For myself, I have 2 small lighting kits, one is a dynalight kit with 3 heads....and the other is one I've cobbled together that's 2 Totalights and an Omni, plus a couple of umbrellas, a boom and some metal flags.....I can shoot at f45 or so with just an Omni on a boom, on a small it can be done. With the hotlights, you can just play around with them, figuring out what works best for you...

-- DK Thompson (, November 27, 2001.

Sorry for my horrible spelling in that last post...I've spent too much time in the dark today....when you say small metal machine parts and gears, just what type of metal? You know, how reflective is it, and what are you trying to show? I do quite a bit of what you might call technical shots of artifacts (I work in a museum), it's not really fine art or commercial, just clean shots for research.... we shoot alot of metal, woodwork, textiles etc.... alot of detail shots of firearms: lockplates, rifling what are you trying to do?

-- DK Thompson (, November 27, 2001.

The metal parts I have in mind are mostly greasy rusted parts off old farm equipment. Cast metal levers that may be several inches long with foundry markings. All oxidized metals, nothing with any more shine than the grease that hasn't hardened completely. My goal is artistic. I photograph old farmsteads and rural scenes and thought some individual component pieces would be an interesting project.

-- Dave Schneider (, November 27, 2001.

Well, then that's a good thing in a way...if they're not brand new and all shiny, then that gives you quite a bit of leeway can do just about anything. Use raking hardlight to bring out textures, play around with cast shadows & forms could try flat/soft lighting to just do a documentary type can use glare on the surfaces to bring out details and textures...

If they're not actual "artifacts", and you're not worried about damaging them, then there are alot of possibilities probably in setting them could get creative with props or mounts for them...."float" them on glass above a background, use hardlight and throw the shadows out of the shot (from the height of the glass platform)...or you can use sheets of glossy black plex. There are ways to shoot items on this surface--by putting cards overhead and carefully spotting hardlights up onto them, bounced down in a small pool of light onto the object--that look like the piece is floating in a pool of can make mounts to hold the things out "suspended" in air over the table, etc.....alot of this stuff we can't do because of possible damage to artifacts.....but, if you can get some focused light, or a good throw of hardlight, you may be able to play around with contrast and shadows....good luck.

Opinions expressed in this message may not represent the policy of my agency.

-- DK Thompson (, November 27, 2001.

Those are some good thoughts on creating a suspended look with clear glass. The black plexiglass may be interesting for the oil pool look. It sort of makes me think of photos I've seen where the object emerges from the pool. I certainly don't have to worry about damaging the items. If they get damaged they would have to go back to the scrap heaps and junk yards from whence they came. I have some old industrial controls and gauges that I have collected from clients over the years that I may do some experimenting with. I have made frames for my diffusers which work well. With the photo floods I typically had the gels about 18 inches from the object with the light about 12 inches from the gel. That seemed like a good starting point. I'll keep trying things until I come up with the right look.

-- Dave Schneider (, November 27, 2001.

I can't take credit for the plex idea....we had the oportunity to briefly meet a couple of the Smithsonian staff photographers a few years back, and they showed us some neat shots they had done that may be surprising to some people, but the Smithsonian is one of the few institutions I've ever come across that actually uses hotlights in their studio....our conservators would freak out & kill us if we did that here....heat is one thing, UV output is another.....those guys were using massive fresnel thing in common that we did was to use this reflector material called "lightform" that delta used to's discontinued now, but they were pre cut sheets of cardboard with silver on one side and white on the other...with a magnetic could fold them up into little triangles and adjust the angles easily...they came with about 20 different sizes on a sheet, and cost about 15 bucks...

They were huge scroungers just like us too....we have a full carpentry/exhibits shop here and just use alot of scrap materials in the the mirrors and gatorboard, acryllic rods and mounts, plex trick we do for small backgrounds is to take an unexposed sheet of matte RC paper and run it through our processor...voila!--a clean white want black? Fog it and run it through the machine....they did something similar, but used an RA4 processor and c-prints.....

So, you just have to be sorta creative...I've used the glass idea for shooting coins and small buttons, arrowheads etc....I'll clamp a thick, clean & clear sheet of glass to a bogen superclamp, and suspend it over a copystand setup about a foot off a background of maybe black velevet or some other can then skim hardlights and cast shadows out of the shot pretty easily this way. Or light from beneath as well...this is another way to get a very clean white background, but the problems come in dealing with reflections off the glass (you have to mask the camera), or dust on the, it's really a pain to do in practice. Sometimes it's what you need to do, though.

I can recommend one great, but out of print book on this sort of thing: Alfred Blaker's, "Photography For Scientific Publication", another similar book might be the Cambridge Press's "Photography for Archaeology and Conservation". The Blaker book is the best.....good luck & have fun, maybe start digging around the junkyards for studio props as well.....

-- DK Thompson (, November 28, 2001.

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