How to Light Objects in Photography

There are lots of ways to introduce studio lighting and it seems like every book I’ve ever read has a different way of going about it.
I think that studio lighting is like telling a story, you can be a master of grammar but without a good idea, the story will be lackluster. The same goes for image making.
This is where one should begin: with an idea and the desire to achieve it.
How to Light Objects in Photography

Lighting in Photography: Studio Lighting for Objects

For as many introductions there are to studio lighting, there are also as many types of studio lighting. If you wish to some day work as a professional, it is in your best interest to be able to light any situation from products to models, table top to cloth swatches. There are two major principles to beginning any studio project.
The first is the location of the “key” light. The second is the object to be photographed and the material of which it is made.

The materials we’re photographing are important indicators to what is “normal” in a proper exposure. If we want to photograph a young woman in a black velvet jacket, we do not want the jacket to be grey on our exposure, we want it to be black, particularly when shooting chromes.
However, with digital offering us more and more tools, we could probably fix most minor exposure problems in post-processing. Nonetheless, the studio allows for total creative control. The better each step is, the better the final product.

The first rule of thumb with studio work is to think about the image before you even begin to set up the shot. The second rule of thumb is “Don’t Panic!” I have yet to do a single project professionally or otherwise that goes perfectly to plan. If the idea begins to undergo metamorphosis, go with it. If you try to force a shoot to specifics, you’ll get frustrated and it still won’t be correct.

Let’s say we’ve got one light (bare bulb, meaning that the light is not confined or controlled with modifiers) and 2 different objects: a cell phone and a stuffed animal.
There is a lot of technical knowledge that you can use in studio work but most will benefit far more from achieving an understanding of how light “looks” rather than all the tools of a million-dollar-a-year studio. The cell phone, made of metallic surface, will cause reflexion of the light, while the stuffed animal is rather in danger of loosing details if shot with a flash. That being said, let’s look at the one light studio applied on the stuffed animal.

When using just one light, youu have to make your subject have shape and motivation from a single direction. One light photography can provide beautiful results for creative portrait work. In the earlier periods of cinema photography, a single source was commonly used for illumination in tight quarters, to provide extremely dynamic and moodily lit images.

When using multiple source lighting, the location becomes less of a contributor to the subject: the ratios of the light to the reflectance and resulting “reflectors” (like walls, the ceiling, the floor) become moot.

Three strobes directed at a single subject will outweigh most of the “reflected” light in the room. When using single source lighting, the objects in close proximity to the subject become a factor, because they will “cast” light onto the subject, sometimes to your benefit, sometimes not so much.

If you do not have a studio at school, or some other connection, you might be using lamps, or flashlights or whatever other sources of illumination you can concoct. That’s fine.

Introduction to Lighting

The example above it’s photographed on two surfaces, a light wood and a black velvet. Black velvet reflects very little light (for you geeks, it’s rated usually at 2% reflectance) and the light wood has a nice finish that makes it quite amber.

The differences between the two images should be immediately visible but perhaps a little misleading. Because the exposure and distances between all objects has not changed, the change in “feel” is a result of A) contrast edges and B) surface reflectivity.

One surface reflects more light than the other, which does many things.
Firstly, the owl on black velvet looks more dynamic because it is! Black velvet acts as “negative fill” or creates areas on your subject that have a lesser value due to a lack of receiving light because of an object placed in the way of its light receiving surfaces.
In other words: you added something to the set to get in the way of the light. Even though the black velvet is not in the direct way of the light source (between the light source and the subject), it still affects the object, compared to the same setup with a different surface.
The second cause for the change in “feel” is the “contrast edge” or lack thereof. In the black velvet owl image, shadow areas on the subject are adjacent to a low-reflective material and the human eye lumps them together.

The owl on wood has more light being reflected into shadow areas, providing a greater value, but also has a “high contrast edge” which provides a distinct difference for the eye to perceive. It essentially prevents us from being lazy, but also contributes to the motivation of the image: the “darker” image pushes you into the areas of highlights, while the “lighter” image causes you to look at the entire object.
Again, I caution that the camera exposure has not changed…

Now you can recognize that elements in the scene and around us contribute to the subject, even if we don’t directly intend them to do so. You can use this to our advantage however.
Let’s say that you want the black velvet surface in the image, but we want the reflected values in the shadowed areas of the owl to be more like it is with the lighter surface… you can still use just one light, but by using a “fill card” we can “fill in” the shadow areas of the owl, without changing the key light or altering the surface in frame.
I use fill cards regularly, with one or two lights, as you can see in this example, to reveal details about the object:

Introduction to Lighting

As you can see in this comparative diptych, the owl on the left has the same moody feel, as the owl on the left in the first example. The surprise is, there is no difference between the values on the surface of the owl on the left in the second example, and the owl on the right of the first example: the only change is that of the “contrast edge” and adjacent areas of “light” and “dark”.

The image of the owl on the right has even MORE light in the shadows than the owl on the right in the first image, and is still on black velvet. No source of light has been added, but the distance between the light, fill card, and owl has been altered.

In the second example, the left owl has a fill card at an equal distance to the subject as the light source, on the same plane as the other two objects (in other words, if you held a string from the fill card to the table lamp, it would pass through the middle of the owl, and the light and the fill card would be equidistant).

The wonderful thing about the Newtonian mechanics of light is that it is extremely predictable and we can use ratios for it easily. The same values of light at the surface of a subject will be achieved (basically) if the subject is 5’6″ high and the light source and fill boards are nine feet away.



I started photography as a hobby in 2005, during college. My passion slowly became a more important part of my life since 2008. Because of using a combination of my photographic knowledge, with those of internet marketing, I like to call myself a "photomarketer".

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