Creative Lighting Tutorial For Still Life Photography

Here we show you a simple lighting technique that can be used on a number of still life subjects.

| Studio Lighting and Flash
Article updated December 2011
Words and Pictures Peter Bargh ePHOTOzine

Make the most of these cold winter days be shooting indoors. Here we've used a simple lighting technique to highlight a chess piece but the same set up can be used on a number of still life subjects.

Set up

There are numerous ways you could light the chess set, but here are a few ideas to get you started. It helps if you can light the set/piece from below so you need to consider how you can suspended the glass board up from the floor. I used an old chemistry clamp. You can use books at either side or a wooden chair that has a removable cushion that leaves just the surrounding frame and then position the board over that.

I made the composition simple by using just one chess piece, placed in the middle of the board. The camera was positioned so that I would shoot from a low angle and the chess board was rotated so that I was shooting across the corners, creating a triangular base.

Creative Lighting Tutorial For Still Life Photography: Creative lighting Creative Lighting Tutorial For Still Life Photography: Creative lighting

Above left is the result of shooting on auto with a typical compact digital camera. The flash fires and creates a well exposed but not very interesting photo. Above right shows what happened when the flash was turned off. The chess piece has picked up the light from a window in the background, but overall the camera couldn't cope with the low light.

How to fix the problem?

Creative Lighting Tutorial For Still Life Photography: Creative lighting

To make a shot that's more interesting and not so dark is to use a pocket torch or similar narrow point light source to add some illumination to the scene. If you don't have someone who can act as your assistant, put your camera on a tripod and use its self-timer to set the exposure going while you add the extra light with the torch.

As you can see in this shot, the camera picks up light from the chess piece, which came from the torch held above, and adjusts the exposure automatically to allow for the bright area. This makes areas out of the torch beam fade into blackness and the reflections in the glass create a pleasing outline or glow to the chess piece.

Try experimenting with the lighting

For this shot the camera angle was reduced so it was almost parallel to the chess piece. And the camera was rotated 90 degrees to shoot in portrait format. This time I used an infrared pointer torch to illuminate the chess piece and moved the narrow beam around during the exposure, which was about one second. It pays to take several shots to ensure one good one where the light has just caught the right spot.
Creative Lighting Tutorial For Still Life Photography: Creative lighting
Here's a similar version lit with the torch from above and behind to create the halo effect around the chess piece. This version has had a fair bit of Photoshop treatment with diffuse glow on a duplicate layer and blue colour added using Hue/Saturation set to colourise.
Creative Lighting Tutorial For Still Life Photography: Creative lighting
The original with the torch positioned near the camera has produced a shadow of the chess piece on the wall. I exposed for the bright light on the wall which has created a sillhouette of the chess piece (bottom left shot).

This version was combined with a cut out of a better exposed chess piece (taken from the same camera position) on a new layer. Then the chess piece layer was coloured gold and the background layer blue to create the contrasting colours. Diffuse glow with grain was applied to the background and I cropped and rotated slightly to give the chess piece a more angled look.
Creative Lighting Tutorial For Still Life Photography: Creative lighting

Other things to try

  • Use a slave flash with a cone over the flash reflector to channel the light into a concentrated area. Try backlighting to create a rim light effect.
  • Shoot from under the glass, over it and at the sides.

Creative Lighting Tutorial For Still Life Photography:
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cattyal Avatar
Some neat ideas there - a colleague gave me a glass chess set a few weeks ago that I've yet to experiment with Smile And your idea of using the chair with the removable seat - never thought of that and I happen to have one in the garage!
Pete Avatar
Pete 22 18.8k 97 England
glad I could help Smile

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