Essential Still Life Lighting Techniques


I was a professional advertising photographer in New York City in my younger days, and now I have truly embraced the digital age of photography. Yet, even as materials and chemicals have disappeared (or almost so) lighting and the art of lighting remains as important as ever.

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When I was photographing products (still life and illustration) for magazines and newspapers, I mostly used bounced light. This gave a very broad, soft quality of light which tended to go around the subject and not cause hard shadows. This is still the best lighting for still life, I find.

However, today we have the soft-box which tends to give the very same quality of light as light bounced off a very large white reflecting surface.

These devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can use all manner of light sources from electronic flash, to quartz lamps, to the new CFL bulbs (compact fluorescent lamps). They seem to be ideal for still life work and I make use of them in my own work extensively.

One fact needs to be stressed, that is: Lighting need not be elaborate or expensive when it comes to still life work.

With that in mind, I will talk about my approach to lighting.

My lighting consists mainly of an older studio electronic flash system which uses quartz bulbs as modeling lights. These quartz lamps can be highly controlled insofar as power output from the main unit is concerned and are exactly representational of the electronic flash in terms of lighting ratio, shadow, and light quality.

They are, however, quite different in terms of quantity of light output, and color temperature of the light.

If I first use the quartz modeling lamps to get the lighting just right, and then shoot the picture using the flash, then the color is balanced to daylight temperature.

That is to say, it is the same color as natural daylight lighting. But it is unbelievably bright! Shooting at f22, on my small sets, I have to apply at least 5 stops of neutral density filtration in order to get the exposures to anything like normal. From that point, I tweak the exposure in successive brackets to arrive at the optimum exposure. This can mean changing the aperture, adding, or substracting neutral density, lowering the light intensity via the electronic controls, increasing the distance from the subject to the lights, adding diffusing material, or a combination of these factors.

However, I use the flash only rarely in my still life work as I prefer to do without the filters which can add unsharpness or lens flair to the shot – though I use high quality filters, this can still be a problem.

Instead, I generally shoot using the quartz modeling lamps and then change the color balance in post processing to a more acceptable and normal looking color temperature. Though I often leave a good bit of the warmth of the quartz lights in the shot as it seems to suit the genre better than a perfectly daylight balanced view might.

Less is more, in Lighting Effects for Still Life work!

Image Not AvailableStill, I only use two or at most three heads in most of my work. One is the main light and is usually in a soft-box or a very wide diffused reflector. (I might even shoot using a reflective umbrella or even through a translucent umbrella if it looks better for a particular subject.)

The second light is always on the other side of the set closer to the angle of view of the camera and is primarily for moderation of the shadow caused by the main light. But, I often don’t use a light at all since the subject may be so small.

When that is the case I might only use a white reflective card placed just out of camera view to reflect some of the light from the main light back into the set in order to soften the shadow and even out the lighting ratio.

When I do use a second, fill light, it is usually bounced from a large white reflector which stands where I would normally place the fill-in light – that is, on the opposite side of the set as the main light and more or less directly in front of the set in line with the camera’s view point.

The light is bounced off that reflector from in front of the reflector and to the side of the set – so it is in front of and pointing more or less at the camera. Here a lens-shade (and a bellows-type shade is best as it is adjustable) becomes an important accessory.

Occasionally, I need another light to put some light in from the top of the set. When this is true, I suspend a white card reflector above the set, and I angle it so that I can bounce light into the set using that reflector. This light is mainly to produce highlights when I am photographing highly reflective objects such as silver, glass, metal vases, or, perhaps, a trumpet – for example.

So, normally I use two lights, very occasionally three lights.

Sometimes, I only use one light and a white card as a reflector.

These cards generally consist of white foam-core boards which are cheap, lightweight, and  not cut all the way through the material  so that they may be bent in order to be self-standing. These are stood and angled, sometimes clamped to a light stand, to get the best bounced light effect and to place highlights exactly where I want them.

I repeat here what I said in the beginning of this small article – lighting need not be elaborate or expensive when it comes to still life work.

One of the best photographers  I have ever known, one of my bosses when I was a very young photographer’s assistant, only used inexpensive, spring loaded aluminum reflector lamps with 3200k, 500watt bulbs bounced into very large white reflective flats.

He did the highest level of professional work  with the cheapest lamps that one can get. Of course, he would bounce maybe 10 or 20 of these lamps off 4X8 ft reflectors into a full sized set, but we were shooting pianos and pool tables as compared to pears in baskets, or flowers.

The very same principal applies however, and that is, bounced light (or lighting of the same quality from a softbox) Image Unavailable produces the most appealing light as it mimics a large, north-facing window best.

Soft light is usually better than harsh light and shadows should normally be well balanced and appropriate for the subject. Lighting ratios should not be too steep.

I hope that this was not too difficult to follow and that it helps some budding still life photographer get a good start in his or her still life work!

Thanks for taking the time to read it.