Though you may be aware of what three point lighting can do for a subject, it doesn’t always work when you are lighting product shots. Products can be either transparent, translucent, opaque, or all three – all factors which strongly affect how well they handle light. In order to master how to control light with any surface, we’ll give you some tips on how to place lights so that your products can look both tempting and professional. Objects that are transparent allow light to travel straight to another object behind or beneath them without obscuring their image.
Things like glass, plastic, and water are all transparent objects that can be notoriously difficult to light – but not impossible. In fact, transparent objects can often give off the most interesting light since they can reflect or refract light in unexpected ways. The thing to keep in mind is that transparent objects don’t take direct illumination well. The light simply passes through them. The best place to start is by p up a strong spotlight placed to the back and side of the product. Especially if you have a dark background – this backlight will define your product’s edges. Next, to show off the contours of the surface without getting overexposed highlights, place a large soft-box or diffusion frame close and to one side of the object. This will draw a line down the object’s surface showing off its contours and texture. You’ll probably find that multiple areas of shadow and highlight end up looking best, so count on having to use plenty of diffusers, white bounce cards, and flags to achieve the best effect.
Also, if you’ll be lighting colored glass or liquid, you may want to build a simple light box to achieve a more pleasing light gradient near the bottom of your product. To build one of your own, you’ll need to get a medium sized cardboard box, a pane of glass to cover the top of the box, a small light stand, black fireproof cloth, scissors to cut a hole in the box and cloth, and a light dimmer. Using your scissors, you’ll want to carefully cut a small 1-foot by 1-foot flap into the cardboard box and a small hole on one side of the black cloth. These openings will provide access to power for our light. Then place the black cloth into the open end of your cardboard box and the put your light stand on top of it. Be sure to trail the power cord and dimmer through the black cloth and box before you cover the box so that you can turn on the light from outside the box. Lastly, place the pane of glass over the top and arrange your products artfully on top.
Now, using your light dimmer, you can slowly bring up the intensity of the light inside the box until the liquid seems to glow. If done right, this can make any product look both interesting and enticing. Translucent objects on the other hand, allow light to pass through without being able to see the image behind or beneath it. Common translucent objects include smoke, fog, steam, etched glass, and gems. With these kinds of objects or products, the most important light will be a backlight. Backlights will give these objects a very defined rimmed highlight which will help prevent them from getting lost in your scene. If the product has a bit of texture on the surface you may want to put a spotlight near the side of the object in order to cast areas of light and shadow over its ridges. It’s important to have a dark or completely black background when setting up any scene with translucent objects because a light background may make the objects difficult to see.
The last kind of surface is one that is opaque. Opaque objects simply absorb or reflect light. The bulk of objects you’ll encounter will have this quality. Those surfaces that absorb light, or the matte surfaces will be the easiest to light. These kinds of products will work well under the same principles that govern three point lighting. As such, having a backlight, to separate the object from the background as well as a key and fill light angled 45-degrees downward will end up looking best. The hardest lighting situation of all is to control overexposed areas on glossy or shiny surfaces. Even so, there are some simple lighting techniques you can use to dampen them. By making your light quality as soft as possible, you can come very close to eliminating highlights. You can use large framed diffusers, reflected light from large white surfaces such as foam-core board, and as a last ditch effort, a light tent.
A light tent is a fabric that surrounds an object with a white or diffused material in order to hide the edges of specular highlights. They work by having light shine in from as many directions as possible while seamlessly diffusing or spreading it evenly across the object. Usually there is a small hole cut in one side of the tent for the camcorder or camera lens to shoot through. Though these tents work incredibly well for object close-ups they don’t make for very realistic backgrounds so they shouldn’t be used if a natural background is needed in the shot. Knowing how to light a variety of surfaces in a professional way is an important skill for any cinematographer. Not only does it give you a starting point for knowing where to place lights in almost any scene, it gives you the comfort of knowing that no matter what the product looks like, you’ll be able to make it look great..