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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Blogger Ben Yoder said...

Thanks for this one! As someone who is just starting to look into the world of product photography, this is a great help in seeing how to visualize an entire shoot for consistency in presentation.

January 08, 2013 9:18 AM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Great words from the mouth of a freelancer, "I'm too busy."
Nice tutorial.

January 08, 2013 9:30 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Truth is, running Strobist (like shooting daily assignments) takes far more time that you'd expect. And, like daily assignments, much of the work is in the back-end/admin portion.

As a result I have very little time for all of the behind-the-scenes front-end time associated with freelance, etc. So my freelance life is both limited and very nontraditional by design.

I have learned to use the blog as a funnel to attract freelance. I get a lot of calls just because people just know that I am in Baltimore because I mention it occasionally (like right now) and send a job my way.

Also, I have learned to create long-term projects (just like the DOP was always telling us to do) that are both interesting, good fodder for the blog and make other freelance jobs happen down the road.

Took me a few years to get here, but it is finally a good and rewarding and sustaining balance.

Knock wood, it'll stay that way.

January 08, 2013 10:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the share, product photography is something I have seriously considered as a place to start. I live in a small market and I think that is one of the few spots of opportunity.

Congrats on getting your professional life worked out, quite inspiring.

January 08, 2013 10:17 AM  
Blogger Tattoo Al said...

David , without the strip boxes lighting the background, if the key light is moving back and forth and varying the power, the background would also be getting lighter or darker right?
So this type of assignment couldn't be done without a constant light on the background?

January 08, 2013 11:20 AM  
OpenID cold-glass.com said...

I often photograph glass and chrome stuff, and you've given me another way to think about it. Thank you.

January 08, 2013 1:04 PM  
Blogger Thomas Shue said...

I would have used a light panel and created a hot spot (place a strobe close to the panel)for fall off that would render the objects as they are with nice wrapping specular highlights.

Also I would have used my incident light meter to get my initial exposure (you know to show the black items are they truly are with zero guessing).

Then I would have switched to the reflective part of my meter to measure the background (BG).

Depending on how much exposure I needed to add to achieve 2 3/4 stops above the incident reading (to ensure I render the BG as pure white) I would have added more layers of diffusion to the light panel which would cause the product to under expose. Thus allowing me to open the aperture to correct the exposure of the product but at the same time increasing the relative BG brightness until I achieve my goal of 2 3/4 over the incident reading.

It's a mouthful to explain but so simple to do. No power adjustments from the initial incident reading, it is just a matter of using layers of diffusion as basically ND filters to control BG brightnesses.

I love to work with panels because you can create wonderful hot spots that give you exacting control over specular edge transfer, that are impossible to create with a softbox that has a fixed light position relative to the front diffusion panel.

You see, I can create one light high key (100% white BG) with ease. However the system hinges on the initial Incident Meter Reading as the foundation of the shot. That reading is the reference that I used to determine (without chimping, guessing, trial and error, ect...)how much light needs to be "taken away" in the case, from the product to render the BG as 100" white.

The same method is used for any BG I wish to create. I use it to create any BG from Black to White.

This system is 100% repeatable, which is important for catalog work, all of the BG's need to be exact and each of the products need look the same.

I am of the less is more mindset. I love to work with one light and do things that most people use Three lights to create. Such as this case a 100% white BG.

I look forward to hear from the neigh sayers. You know 100% white High Key with one light and exacting Specular edge transfer controls that I described.

David, I love your blog. I never comment, but I felt the need to after I read your position on the light meter. I have found that learning the proper use of a good light meter makes short work of complex lighting setups. Also it eliminates guess-work, and insures repeatability.

When I use the light meter to measure my setups, I press the shutter button and I know it's going to be right.

January 08, 2013 2:43 PM  
Blogger Thomas Shue said...

David I don't post comments here, I am having a hard time determining if my post even was sent.

There is no conformation that it went through. Sorry if I posted 5 comments.

I kept getting errors in the Prove your not a Robot. Is there supposed to be a space between the numbers and the letters.

I must be getting old, because these anti spam thingys are a pain for me to get past.

Sorry of I wasted your time, I just felt passionate about the light meter comment. If the post doenst not make it though, I will try to email it to you. Tom

January 08, 2013 2:51 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Comments are moderated, because I get a lot of comment spam. This means you will almost never see published them immediately.

January 08, 2013 3:06 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks for such a great and learning share. Did you use fish line to hold the light stands up?

January 08, 2013 3:31 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


You're welcome! And nope, just stood them up on the plexi, which is where the Apple-like reflections come from.

In the case of the square-nubbish-looking Universal Translator (right side of the composite) it is "floating" on a piece of mounting putty to give a more pleasing shadow.

January 08, 2013 4:02 PM  
Blogger John said...

I'm jazzed to learn this setup. Anyone recommend moderate-priced strip lights? Many seem to be awfully expensive, thx much.

January 08, 2013 5:46 PM  
Blogger Jimbo N said...

Holy crap...what a great post. David ~ your ability to share your knowledge in this post is awesome and your open and honest comments about your business model really are inspiring. There you have it. Awesome and inspiring. Great work.

January 08, 2013 6:30 PM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

Super post David and plenty of detail too.

You must have a whole lot more minutes in your hours than I do.

Light meter man, but not in similar situations.

January 08, 2013 6:56 PM  
Blogger David Van Achter said...

Nice setup and thanks for sharing...

It inspired me to try something myself. I ordered 7!!! kinds of energy drink of the same brand (Monster) and I'm going to try and take a "family picture".

I have NEVER done something like this before, but even if it fails, I'll still be able to quench my thirst and stay active. ;)

Keep up the good work, and remember: better to much work then none at all in these difficult times. :)

January 09, 2013 7:19 AM  
Blogger Shanx said...

The book "light-science and magic" has a whole juicy section on how to photograph black objects with texture. The standard method of using a raked light wont work very well because diffuse reflections are particularly hard to see on black objects. However, If you fill the entire family of angles with a diffuse light source you can see texture and less specular highlights on the subject-which is what is being done here.

January 10, 2013 3:00 AM  
Blogger Daniel Sullivan said...

You had me at Leg Spike!

January 10, 2013 8:34 AM  
Blogger Silver Image said...

I'll second Light, science & Magic as a great guide to shooting various surfaces. Should be a primer for anyone wanting to shoot tabletop/product shots. I hear many people say they would like to start with product work, but I am most certainly afraid of it. It is a study of perfection that may be the most difficult field in photography.

January 10, 2013 10:00 AM  
Blogger Dylan Huey said...

This may be a silly question but is there a line that appears because the background and the shooting surface are two separate pieces? Is this photoshoped out or does the shooting angle get rid of it?

January 10, 2013 11:44 AM  
Blogger Sergei said...

John - you dont really need strips for doing shoot like that. Can do just fine with using bounce boards.
But you might get some cheap-ish from ebay - like 20/40$ a pop, unless you going after seriously large ones.

January 10, 2013 3:59 PM  
Blogger Sergei said...

@Thomas - i am with you on using flashmeter. While i can guesstimate well within 1stop - i prefer to use one, specially when its time critical shoot. As of comments - imagine how many comments David got to moderate :) Take a deep breath and come in 12 hours, most of time (unless he is super swamped) - it will appear ;)

January 10, 2013 4:03 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep, technically. But it is lit white paper being reflected by white plexi. And the line is out of focus. So it is pretty invisible, even before post.

January 10, 2013 4:22 PM  
Blogger Gavin Jackson said...

Thanks for the post, the end result looks terrific, I think Lumopro will be extremely happy with this!

Out of interest, I don't suppose you heard any rumours about an LP160 replacement? I'm in the market for another manual flash and was wondering if you could recommend a suitable alternative?

January 10, 2013 5:02 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Hey Gavin-

I don't have anything to tell you on the LP180 other than what is already out there. Kevin at LumoPro knows everything, tho. So you can bug him. (Someone needs to do it other than me...)

January 10, 2013 6:17 PM  
Blogger Steve Fett said...

Thanks Dave. Love the cord shot. Never thought about bouncing the key light around to get different angles of specular.

January 10, 2013 8:11 PM  
Blogger shashin said...

Very informative post David. I'm a professional commercial photographer and do my utmost to share knowledge with assistants and enthusiasts. However, I do take issue with your comment:

"Or possibly even do it in-house"

Is this really behaviour that professionals should be encouraging? I'd have no problem charging a client for a training session and offering support as and when needed for a small fee. But I certainly wouldn't give them a blueprint free of charge. The chances are very high they'll follow the instructions, probably not get it 100% right, but publish it anyway.

I remember being enormously proud of work I produced years back. Looking back it's full of little mistakes and i'm embarrassed I ever submitted it to a client. But I only know that after years of experience and hard work. No matter how enthusiastic, I can't believe someone in the office with an interest in photography will bring the same level of professionalism and attention to detail.

The consequences are two-fold: the photographer is cut out of the loop and the standard expected by the client have dropped.

January 11, 2013 4:39 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


OMG, you are right. I had better go and erase Lighting 101 before over 3,000,000 people take the course! D'oh! Too late!

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

I hear what you are saying. But products on white is hardly rocket science information. It has long been commoditized and can be inexpensively hired via internet. (Google a little, and you'll see.)

But also consider a couple of other things. LumoPro has a fair number of photographers in-house, as does any photo gear retail/manufacturer. And I *want* them to succeed.

Why? Because they came about largely as a result of the growth of this site and the people who read it.

They produced a quad sync, full manual flash for not a lot of money when no one else was going that.

They continually create and iterate gear—quality gear, at good prices—for the small-flash photographer.

The warranty the living crap out of the gear, unlike the pop-up, fly-by-night companies who compete solely on price.

LumoPro is exactly the kind of company you want to see succeed, and help them do so.

And even if all of that were not true, this site has always been about the democratization (not sequestration) of lighting info. That genie is long out of the bottle.

As a result, if the Guy in Accounting who does in-house photography for his company threatens you, you need to





January 11, 2013 11:27 AM  
Blogger D.Meds said...

Thank you David it's so kind this shooting making a lot out of my memory about the reflections exactly the direct one and the lovely family of angles for the highly reflective surfaces I see it as a new look in deep inside the (light science & magic ) and a complete refresh of Dean Collins bucket of water principle to deal with specular highlight.

January 11, 2013 1:29 PM  
Blogger Rob Blasdel said...

WoW! Thanks for the lesson. This type of stuff has been a b*tch to shoot. I usually just keep moving lights around and end up getting it by accident. I think Mercedes may have read the blog entry:
http://willthef1journo.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/v6-image-2-front-three-quarter.jpg Great shot of their new Mercedes F1 engine for 2014.

January 11, 2013 3:47 PM  
Blogger Fr. T. said...

David, Thanks for a great post. You've given me some ideas to try when I'm shooting silver and gold things. Talk about speculars...

Keep up the good work. I love it!

January 12, 2013 10:39 AM  
Blogger High School Seniors Portraits said...

hello, recently i photographed i-phone accessories and needed the phone in it too. my biggest issue was the reflection and i shot the items straight down and needed to be off center to not get the reflection in the final image, this was challenging and would really like to hear how you would approach this? Please? Thanks so much fro your post, very informative for me. Tom

January 12, 2013 12:56 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@High School-

This is an older generation iPhone, so might not apply to you. ;)


January 12, 2013 2:15 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

"Apple-like reflections" I almost hate myself for knowing exactly what you mean even though I keep telling myself that Apple didn't invent that reflected look :-/
The thing I first picked out of this was your clear thinking behind building a setup that has a threshold ("the line") where in-front suits one thing and behind suits another which I suppose is much easier to see and build using continuous light sources. Inspirational blog post. Thanks.

January 14, 2013 7:58 AM  
Blogger Icepick said...

This post was very helpful almost immediately. On the 13th I was called to do some product shots of a can-filler (for a beverage plant) before it shipped on the 16th.

It was different than your task being almost 15 feet across and about 55" inches tall and lots of shiny machined aluminum.

However, I was able to apply much of what you did to the task (the lighting setup was similar to yours using two speedlights and an Einstein e640) and the results made the customer very happy. (which translates into my happiness, of course)

Thank you, from an almost neighbor in Ellicott City.

January 31, 2013 1:46 PM  
Blogger JClanton said...

Do you use a grey card or color checker in your product shots?

April 02, 2013 7:13 AM  
Blogger Pavlov Studios said...

Thanks for the post. Really helpful.

April 04, 2013 10:48 PM  
Blogger bindin Gorgia said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 14, 2013 2:38 PM  

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