How to Photograph Shiny Objects :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Shiny Objects

by David Peterson 3 comments

In so many ways, indoor, tabletop photography is ideal for beginners. There are a ton of advantages to shooting photos inside your own home, using controlled light and objects that can't move on their own or protest. Taking photos indoors in your own tabletop studio is a great way to teach yourself about light without the encumbrances of time or the pressures associated with photographing living subjects. Read on for my tips.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 50 mm

Tilt by Flickr user 96dpi

But tabletop photography is not without its own frustrations and challenges, and if you’ve ever spent any time indoors experimenting with different objects, you almost certainly know what I mean. Maybe you even consciously avoid certain subject types, such as those made out of metal, glass or highly reflective plastic. These objects may seem difficult—if not impossible—to photograph well, because whenever you point a light at them you get a hard, white highlight where you’d like to be able to show detail. So should you just give up on your quest to shoot your collection of glassware or your grandmother’s antique silverware? Of course not!

Why shiny things hate us

To understand why highly reflective objects are so difficult to photograph, you must first understand a few things about light and why it seems to reflect off some objects, but not off of others. The fact is that all objects reflect light—an object that didn’t reflect light, if such a thing existed, would be invisible. We need that reflected light in order to see the object.

Every light source emits a spectrum of colors. When this spectrum lands on an object’s surface, some of those colors are absorbed and some penetrate the surface of that object just a little bit before they are reflected back. It’s those reflections that tell us what color an object is.

An object that has a rough or matte surface reflects light just as an object with a shiny surface does, but all those different planes and angles (no matter how small) reflect light at a lot of different angles, scattering it. This is called “diffuse reflection” and it makes the surface of an object look matte instead of glossy.

A smooth, polished surface such as your glassware or your grandmother’s silverware, on the other hand, reflects light predictably—the angle of incidence (the incoming light) and the angle of reflection (the outgoing light) are at identical angles compared to all the other angles of incidence/angles of reflection, regardless of where the light strikes the object. That’s what creates that shiny surface that’s so difficult to photograph.

Diffusing the light

Now that you understand why shiny things are such a challenge to photograph, I hope that the answer to this problem will seem obvious. To remove those unwanted reflections from the surface of your shiny subject, you must diffuse the light before it actually reaches that reflective surface.

  • Nikon D300S
  • 200
  • f/8.0
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 17 mm

DIY Light Tent by Flickr user J.Loov

One of the simplest ways to do this is to invest in a light tent, which is a cube made of a white, diffuse material. Place your subject inside the cube and place the lights outside the tent. The white material will scatter the light, which will soften up those reflections and make it much easier to photograph your subject.

If you don’t have a light tent, you can also use a roll of diffusion paper—just place the paper between your subject and the light. You can then make adjustments to the angle of the light and the distance between light and subject to change the shadows on your subject and to make the object look more dramatic and/or three dimensional.

Camera settings and equipment

Now that you’ve conquered that stubborn reflection, let’s just go over the basic camera settings and equipment that you’ll need to use to get good results. If you’ve already spent a lot of time taking photos in your tabletop studio, you probably know that you should strive for a small aperture (large f-number) and a low ISO. That small aperture will help you achieve clarity from foreground to background, which is very important in any photo where your goal is to capture detail. Remember that the closer you get to your subject, the less depth of field you will be able to achieve—so small apertures are the only way you’re going to get that clarity all the way across your subject. Likewise, a low ISO is necessary for these close-up shots because you don’t want noise obscuring all that detail. High ISOs can also impact color clarity and tonal range, so pick a low number and stick with it.

A tripod is also necessary any time you’re shooting small objects in an indoor studio, for a couple of reasons—first, because that low ISO and small aperture combination may require you to use a slow shutter speed, and you’ll need to stabilize your camera in order to avoid introducing camera shake into the scene. Second, whenever you get very close to an object it can be extremely difficult to maintain your focus point. Just a small shift in position could mean the difference between a tack sharp subject and one that’s blurry in all the wrong places, so it’s important to have your camera mounted on a tripod when you find and lock onto that focus point.

Finally, you’ll need a cable or remote release so you can avoid touching your shutter button when you actually go to make the exposure. If your shutter speed is slow, any movement is going to cause camera shake—and that shake will actually be magnified depending on how close you are to your subject. So you’ll need to have some way to remotely release your shutter—if you don’t have a remote release you can also use your camera’s self-timer function. Just set it to five seconds and that should be enough time for the vibration to stop between the time you press your shutter button and the time the exposure is actually made.

What about larger objects?

Not every shiny object you want to photograph is going to fit inside a light tent. There are plenty of large, reflective objects as well and I’m not going to tell you that you have to avoid photographing them just because you have less control over the light.

Let’s take cars as an example. A new car is always polished, which means that its surface is just like your grandmother’s set of antique silverware. Now you obviously can’t place a roll of diffuse paper between the sun and your car, unless you have a very large roll of paper indeed, but you can choose to take photos of that car when the light is ideal. Bright, sunny days close to noon are the worst times to take photos of almost anything, but reflective subjects in particular are going to have a lot of unwanted glare in these lighting conditions. Instead, aim for the hour just after sunrise or the hour just before sunset, when the light is naturally diffused and soft, no giant roll of paper required. You can also choose an overcast day—some photographers call this particular lighting situation “nature’s softbox” because the clouds do the same job as that roll of paper in diffusing the light before it reaches your subject.

Even good light isn’t going to be enough to banish all those reflections, so you will also need to pay careful attention to what ends up reflected on the surface of that vehicle. First, simply turn around and see what’s behind you. If there’s a big, ugly warehouse keep in mind that that warehouse is probably going to be reflected in your car’s paint job. Instead, try to orient yourself so that there is a large, open area behind you such as a field. And take care that you yourself aren’t reflected in the paint job, either.

Conclusion

Whether you’re shooting cars or spoons, there’s no question that this is a challenge, but I think it’s a pretty fun one. In most cases you’re going to find that a little experimentation gives you the best results—make sure you try different camera angles as well as different positions for the lights (provided you have that option). And keep in mind that your goal isn’t to remove all evidence of reflection—reflection is what gives you highlights, and highlights work together with shadow to create an image that seems to exist in three dimensions. So it’s OK to have a little bit of reflection in your photo—what you want to avoid are those bright, glaring hotspots. If you can tame those a little bit of remaining reflection is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Summary

  1. Diffuse the light
    • Use a light tent
    • Use diffuse paper
  2. Tabletop photography
    • Use a low ISO and a small aperture
    • Use a tripod
    • Use a cable or remote release
  3. Larger objects
    • Shoot during the golden hour or on an overcast day
    • Choose a setting without a lot of objects that will reflect in your subject

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Comments

  1. Michele Welch says:

    This is a great article! Thanks for all the tips. One question I have about shiny objects is this. I have another side business that I engrave stainless steel tumblers. I have the worst time photographing them. Do you have any tips for me?

  2. Bernie Nash says:

    Just read this before going to a truck show where everything is shiny!! Thanks David that is just good timing!

  3. galian says:

    all i can say is that thank you very much indeed for the tips,suggestion and good informations and also very usefull and interesting comment given by you in order for me to follow and practise it just to have a good and memorable photos.

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
12 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+.