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On Assignment: Shiny Black Toys

A little ways back, LumoPro approached me about doing photos of their product line. That's a lot of gear, and the whole project was more than I would have time to take on.

But I do enjoy shooting this kinda stuff. So we compromised in that I would shoot some of their more popular items now and the photos could be used as a template for anyone who might be shooting the other items later.

Here's the thing. Shooting shiny black objects is one of those cases where your incident meter may be very accurate, but in practice it's no help at all. Because properly exposed, a black object is, well, black…

Don't Trust Your Flashmeter

This is one of those times when your camera back actually trumps a several-hundred-dollar flash meter. Because shooting a shiny black object is not about getting the incident exposure right. (After all, black is black is black.) But rather it is about creating—and then photographing—controlled reflections on those objects.

On black, texture is defined by specular reflections. On white it is defined by shadows. So to shoot the LP toys we'll need to create some speculars. But not before creating a consistent background environment.

Background Check

I want these on white, so we'll start there. I set up a half-width bright white paper on a background stand and lit it with two strip boxes. I did this so I could get even and controllable light, but also because I'll be asking double duty from those strips later.

Next, adjust the aperture and flash power until (using my histogram) I get an even, almost-but-not-quite white tone on the paper. This is better than off-the-charts white because you can always ditch tone/texture in Photoshop but it is hard to get it back if you do not have it.

The background standardized, I put some white acrylic on two saw horses. This would be my shooting surface and give me nice reflections when wanted.

For my key light I would be using a Photek 60" Softlighter, positioned to create the type of specular highlight I wanted and power-adjusted to make it the appropriate density. (You could use any large light source here, as long as you didn't have umbrella ribs showing.)

Here's what it looked like from above:

Now that everything is consistent in the surface and on the background, I can do just about anything I want by tweaking the geometry a little:

There is a line of demarkation on the acrylic surface that will determine whether or not the strips act as rim lights. If I place the object nearer to me (inside the line) it will not be able to "see" the strip lights, and thus will not give me strong back/side speculars. Note: the subject will see the background paper, which will create low-density rim speculars, though.

If I move the object past (i.e., behind) the lines, it will see the strips and I will get strong speculars. One setup, lots of flexibility.

Moving the key back and forth, in and out (and adjusting the power) will give me all the control I need over my main specular reflections. And where I place that main specular will define shape and texture of the object.

Take this LP606 8-foot stand, for instance. Putting it beyond the stripbox visibility line gives me a nice collection of speculars on the tubes. These speculars are important, as they inform the surface and texture of the stand. The speculars are where the sexy is.

Your fancy incident flashmeter will tell you nothing about what is essentially the most important lighting detail of your photo. It's not about exposure so much here, although I am eyeballing that to make sure the knobs look good up top.

It's all about the size and intensity of the speculars. Bigger size (and/or closer) light sources equals bigger, less intense specular highlights. So size is important on the key light, too.

On something that is more matte, like this LP633 Umbrella Swivel, the specular rims aren't that big a deal. I am mostly concerned with bringing that key light in close enough (as in, very close) so that it gives me huge speculars that inform the swivel's shape and texture:

Again, the background environment is consistent, so I can be almost there by just bringing the swivel inside the "rim visibility" line and jamming that key in real close.

This sync cord image is pretty much done with just the key, but by bouncing the key around like a pool shot:

If you look closely, there are speculars everywhere. Big key equals nice, stripey primary speculars. But that key also lights the acrylic, giving bounceback—and more speculars. Essentially, one light is doing lots of different things for me.

Like anything else shiny and black, it is all about the reflections.

Moving in close on an LP605 leg spike, the key light is set for the specular to fill those flat surfaces, giving a tone that reveals the surface texture of the metal.

On the curved surfaces, the specular is concentrated by the geometry of the reflective surface, giving a brighter tone. And that is how your eye knows it is curved. Balancing those two tones is what your exposure is about.

Again, the white stays constant: just a barely retained tone for safety and internal flare control, and that is taken out in post.

So with a style template—and a lighting roadmap—LumoPro will be able to backfill the rest of the product line with another photographer, or even one of those internet-based, shoot-it-on-white studios. Or possibly even do it in-house.

But visual brand consistency over time will be important. And as long as you remember that is all about the reflections, it will be a pretty straightforward thing to shoot.

They aren't quite there yet. But at some point, keep an eye out for a whole new, unified look to the LumoPro catalog—and know exactly how it was done.


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