White on white images :: Digital Photo Secrets

White on white images

by David Peterson 4 comments

If you've ever spent any time photographing products in a studio setting, you've probably tried capturing images of white objects against a white background. Done correctly, white on white can be really stunning. Done incorrectly, it's still a valuable learning experience. That is, if you don't throw that beautiful white egg across the room in frustration, splattering it all over your poor dog, wife/husband or that painting that you never really liked much anyway.

[ Top image Egg with directional shadow and background by Flickr user Joost Nelissen]

Photographing a white object against a white background has been called one of the most challenging studio shots to master. And that's for pretty obvious reasons, but mostly because your camera is dumb. I know, you paid a lot of money for your camera and you don't like to hear it insulted, so don't worry. All cameras are kind of dumb.

That's because a camera's meter is designed to assume that everything in a scene averages out to roughly middle-gray. Can you see where I'm going with this? There isn't much in a white on white shot that is going to qualify as middle gray, not the subject, and certainly not the background. So the first problem you're going to have is that if you depend on your camera's meter to tell you how to make the exposure, you're going to end up with an underexposed image. But that's just where your problems begin.

If your background is white and your subject is white, how does your camera know where one object ends and another one begins? And therein lies the primary problem with trying to photograph this particular scene, unless you are very careful about how you light your image, you're going to end up with a white object that blends into the white background.


Impatiens by Flickr user darkmatter

Now, artistically this might be the choice you want to make. I'm sure you've seen plenty of photos like this, high key images with very little outline and not much detail in those midtones, if there are any midtones at all. This is a perfectly valid artistic decision. If you follow the suggestions I'm going to give you and still find you enjoy those minimalistic high key images, where your subject appears to vanish into the background, feel free to stick with what works for you. These tips apply mostly to shots where it is important to show an object in its entirety, such as product images.

How to shoot white on white, but keep that definition between background and foreground

You need to have precise control over your light when shooting white on white images, so a studio setup is somewhat of a requirement. Fortunately I use the term "studio" pretty loosely, because you can put together everything you need pretty cheaply and still get professional quality results. At the very least you will need a lighting fixture that you can clamp onto a surface (otherwise known as a "clamp light") and a daylight-balanced frosted bulb. You will also need a large, even white surface—a big piece of foam core will work great for this exercise. Finally, you need a large, white surface to place your object on (this will work if you're shooting from above your subject) or a curved "infinity" background that will give you a seamless transition from the surface area under your subject to the background.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
  • 400
  • f/6.3
  • 0.033 sec (1/30)
  • 100 mm

Paper Crane by Flickr user Terriko

Now, there are a lot of different ways to light a white on white subject, but the easiest way is to not light your subject at all. Instead, use that clamp light to light the backdrop. This will give you a strong white background and will cause your subject to render a little more on the gray side. But wait a second, isn't that more like gray on white? Yes and no. It is true that the difference between the background white and the grayer subject means you've got an image that isn't technically white on white, but your viewer isn't going to notice. Done correctly, your subject is going to be close enough to pure white that your viewer's brain will just ignore that grayish tone and think "white!" The true purpose of that hint of gray is to provide definition between the subject and the background.

If you want to try a setup that's a little less low tech, you can try placing your subject on a piece of frosted plexiglass and then lighting it from below, with your camera above your subject looking more or less straight down. You will need another light source to light your subject from above, and you will also need a small piece of cardstock, which you will place between your light source and your subject. Again, the idea is to expose for the background, that's where you'll want to have your pure white. The subject itself should be a little less white, which will help it stand out from that pure white background. The cardstock placed between the primary light source and your subject will remove a little bit of light so you won't get that blending between subject and background. You can adjust the position of the card stock and the distance from your subject depending on the results you want to achieve.

Now these are just two basic setups, you can experiment as much as you like by adding light, reflectors, etc. in order to achieve those subtle shadows that you need to help separate your subject from the background and bring out details in the places that need it the most.


Change of Pace by Flickr user darkmatter

What if I'm not happy with my results?

As with many things photographic, there are a lot of different tricks photographers use to get this particular shot and not every one of them will work for every object and/or lighting situation. This is one of those subjects that will really benefit from experimentation, so be ready to burn memory cards.

If you're not getting good results, the first thing you can try is using a harder light source. I know, I usually extol the virtues of diffused light, but in this case you need a harder light to define those shadows. The shadows are going to give you what you desperately need to separate your subject from the background: definition around the edges of your object. If you find that your subject is blending into the background in just one small spot, for example, you can add a little hard light there to create a shadow.

If you're shooting a reflective material such as white glass or porcelain, you can give your subject a definitive outline by making use of a pair of those black reflectors. You know the things I'm talking about, one came with your set of reflectors and you took it out of the package and said to yourself, "What the heck am I going to do with a black reflector?" Well, here's what; prop up it up on one side of your white object, and then place a matching one on the other side. Ta-da! You've got a nice, well-defined outline on either side of your subject. Just keep in mind that the more reflective your subject is, the better this is going to work.

  • Samsung Electronics LSI_S5K4AAFA-1.3Mega
  • 0.048 sec (1/21)

Snöflinga! by Flickr user TM - the crocheteer!

Underexposing slightly (by a half a stop or so) is another common technique that photographers use when shooting white on white. Underexposure by itself, however, is not a complete solution. You will get more definition on the edges of your object, but you will also get a gray background and subject instead of the white you were going for. When underexposing, use a reflector to bounce light back into those too-dark parts of the scene.

Other things to keep in mind:

Manual mode. Another thing to remember is that you can't use auto modes when you're shooting white on white. Your camera's meter is going to try under-exposing the scene because it wants everything to average to middle-gray. Use a gray card to get the exposure correct, and bracket every shot you take.

Careful focus. Good focus is always important, but it's particularly important when shooting white on white. That's because a sharp edge gives you a better definition between object and background than a soft one does. If your depth of field is shallow, aim for placing the focal point along those edges. If your results aren't what you had in mind (say other important parts of the object fall out of focus), you will need to add depth of field to your image by using a smaller aperture and a slower shutter speed.

Light quality. We photographers are sort of trained to understand that diffused light is better than hard light. Most of the time, this is the case, that's why product photographers swear by their soft boxes. I know I already mentioned this but it's worth repeating: with white on white, a little hard light can mean the difference between a failed photo and a great one. Hard light creates a darker shadow, and with a white on white shot shadow is what gives you that much-needed definition. To create hard light, use a smaller light source that hasn't been diffused and position it some distance from your subject. This will help create definition on the edges of your subject.


    bw coffee cup by Flickr user nigel_appleton

    Moving, adjusting and reshooting. All photography is about experimentation, but that's particularly true for tricky subjects such as a bright white egg in front of a white background. You're going to have to make adjustments, shoot, check your LCD, move things around, bracket and shoot again. If you're not getting the results you want with your subject in its current position, try changing its angle. Try moving it closer to the backdrop, or further away. Change the position of your light source. Now try changing the position of your camera—your camera's position changes the angle of reflection, which will change the image itself.

    Reflectivity. If you're still having some trouble getting that definition between subject and background, consider using a background with a different texture than your subject. The surface of a piece of shiny foam core, for example, is much more reflective than the shell of an egg. Some photographers will even use a commercially-available product called "dulling spray" to get rid of the shine on their subject.

    • Canon EOS 40D
    • 100
    • f/7.1
    • 0.008 sec (1/125)
    • 100 mm

    Single Sided by Flickr user gfpeck

    Bounced light.Have a reflector on hand to help you create highlights or shadows on your subjects. Both are important in adding depth and dimension to your otherwise colorless image. Black bounces, as mentioned above, can add outlines to your white object, and white or silver ones can add highlights. Bounces work best with subjects that are more reflective, such as porcelain or metal.

    When all else fails, Photoshop

    Sometimes it can be prohibitively difficult to get the results you want in camera. Maybe your background is too gray, or that one shadow isn't quite dark enough. There are a number of things you can do in post processing to improve your white on white image. If you just aren't getting that perfect white background, you can simply cut out your object and paste it into a background that is a perfect white. Now, I say "simple" but in reality this can be challenging, especially when that white on white makes it hard for the software's magic wand to know the difference between subject and background. You'll need some Photoshop skills to do this seamlessly.

    If those edges just aren't dark enough, you can use the "burn" tool to make them more prominent, remembering of course that this only works if there's some edge there to begin with. If you're very good you may even be able to get away with drawing an edge, but you'll have to do this manually, since even the most sophisticated post processing software can't add detail where there isn't any. You can also try using the "unsharp mask" tool to bring out those edges. Just keep in mind that less is more, especially with this type of image. A black line isn't going to look right on a white subject, choose a very soft gray instead. And don't overdo the sharpening, it's easy to tell when you've gone too far.

    Conclusion

    White on white is challenging, no question about it. It's so challenging, in fact, that I almost insist that you try it. Learning experiences are great for any photographer, regardless of your current skill level, and white on white photography can give you an excellent lesson in light, shadow and reflection.

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    Comments

    1. Helga Gotthardt says:

      Great article David and you always explaine it so well. thanks

    2. Mark says:

      Great article and some very useful tactics to try out. I did pretty much what many try - softboxes, and worse still, light tents. Dont bother with the latter, that massive infusion of diffused light from all sides just blows out the subject. My take away from this - dont limit your self to diffuse light all the time and shadows are your friend.

    3. dorothy says:

      great stuff ( as usual ) :)

    4. Dorothy Fioravanti says:

      White on White

      Wow David what great ideas here, and wonderful guide lines.
      Thank you, I am going to give it a go, and when I nail it I will send it to you
      with my remaining energy....

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    Difficulty:
    Beginner
    Length:
    17 minutes
    About David Peterson
    David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.