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How to Light Reflective Objects for Still Photography

Updated on April 11, 2011


In this Hub I would like to show you how to photograph reflective objects, in this example I will be using a spray gun made out of stainless steal.

Here is a list of equipment I used to create this photo; SLR camera, foam core, seamless paper, alien bee lights, grids and a C-stand with a boom arm.

How I Did it

One of the main problems with lighting reflective objects is that they reflect light and everything around them, including your camera, you, the stuff on the walls and anything else you have in the room.

Below is a paint gun which is made out of stainless steel. As you can see I have one light off to the right side pointed directly at the paint gun. This is a lousy way to light stainless. You can see a large reflection on the side of the paint gun; the metal of the sprayer is also lit unevenly so the metal doesn't look like metal should, its dark in some areas and extremely light in other areas.

One light to the right
One light to the right

So how do we fix these problems? Its pretty simple really, the trick to lighting a reflective surface like this is not to try to directly light the reflective metal but to light what's being reflected in the surface of the metal. Let me rephrase that! You do not want to light a reflective surface directly, what you want to do is light what is being reflected in the metal surface. In this case I will use white foam core to give the metal a white metallic look.

You might of noticed in the images above that the lower half of the paint gun is evenly lit and looks more like a metal surface than the rest of the paint gun. This is because the table is covered in white seamless and and that white is reflecting into the bottom of the paint gun.  So to get the rest of the paint gun evenly lit I need to surround it in white foam core and light the foam core instead of lighting the actual spray gun. I started with moving my main light over and slightly behind the paint gun to light the background and to get rid of the highlight on the side of the sprayer.

One light overhead
One light overhead

Now that the bright spot is gone the spray gun looks a lot better but we still have a lot of work to do. For one you can see me in the reflection of the spray gun.

Next I added some foam core on the right side of the paint gun and instead of trying to directly light it I placed a light behind the paint gun and bounced a light into the front of  foam core. I used a 10-degree grid on this light to narrow the light and make sure it wasn't hitting the actual paint gun but hitting the foam core. This also gives me more control over the falloff of the light. I will explain this in more detail later. As you can see from the image below the left side of the paint gun is now more evenly lit and the harsh light is no longer present.

The next step was to fill the middle of the paint gun with white and get rid of my reflection. To do this I placed a piece of foam core directly in front of the camera then cut a hole just big enough so my lens could see the paint gun. As you can see in the photo below you can still see the dark spot in the paint gun from the hole I cut. There really is nothing you can do about this, especially in a rounded object so I will have to use photoshop to fix it later.

I then add another piece of foam core on the right side and placed another light behind the spray gun to light the new piece of foam core.

Ok so now it looks pretty good but im not finished just yet you can see a little bit of inconsistency in the middle where the rounded edge is in the middle. To fill this I placed another piece of foam core across the top of the other two pieces. Because this part of the paint gun is rounded its reflecting the ceiling of my studio a bit and this is causing the inconsistency.

After a little photoshop work on the dark spot caused from our hole in the foam core and some basic retouching to clean it up this is the finished product.

FInished Product
FInished Product

A Few Notes on Lighting and the use of Grids

If you look at the finished shot above you will notice a few things, first is that the paint gun is not completely flat and lacking any blacks. This was done on purpose, I could have completely surrounded the paint gun to make sure there were hardly any blacks in the final image at all. This was a creative call on my part I think that some of the black areas near the nozzle and right side of the sprayer give the image more texture and help separate it from the background.

Also you will notice the top of the paint gun handle is a little lighter than the bottom around the husky lettering. This was also done on purpose. If you remember I used a 10 degree grid on the back lights to narrow the light, I did this so I could focus the light on the foam core to control it more. This allowed me to point the light at the top of the foam core making it brighter which reflected into the top of the paint gun and made the top of the spray gun lighter as well. This was also a creative choice on my part, I believe the Husky lettering pops a little more when it is a little darker than the rest of the paint gun, although its very subtle.

Lighting Layout


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