Lighting 101: Textural Lighting for Detail Shots

This is one technique I like to use when I am looking for one or two more photos to glean from an assignment.

Designers appreciate the flexibility of being able to use a well-done detail shot in a layout, and you will sometimes be surprised by how well they are used. This is especially the case when they have strong relevance to the story or are executed particularly well.

The key is adding depth and texture to what may be a boring, two-dimensional object. To do this, you'll be placing the item somewhere so that you can get the strobe to exectly the same height to let the hard light rake across your object. You can use a table, or you can simply set the item on a floor and place the flash on the floor a few feet away.

By far, your biggest variable will be the height of the flash to your object. Nail this variable down first. Little moves make big differences n the way a seemingly two-dimensional object expresses its true three-dimensionality. For that reason (and more flexibility) I sometimes like to use a table to get the subject I am shooting off of the ground (and place the flash on a nearby light stand. That way I can control the relative angle and height very precisely.

You'll be surprised at how much texture you can bring out in a "2-D" object this way.

Move the flash away a little. You have power to burn - you are shooting with direct, hard light - so there is no sense in getting light fall-off if you do not want it.

Use a warming gel to mimic late-day light if you wish. Place books strategically between your light and the objects to create interesting shadows.

(If you do this, consider having the light come in from the direction of on of the corners of your frame. That makes for more interesting compositional lines.)

Actually, I use this "single plane" kind of lighting for more three-dimensional objects, too. You can get more complex with it, adding multiple light sources and pieces of paper to diffuse the light:

As with anything else related to lighting, the only limit is your imagination and creativity.

Are you a freelance editorial shooter? This table-top (or floor) lighting is a technique that can quickly quickly boost your income.

Most assignments are billed on a day-rate-against-space basis, meaning you get paid more if they run more pictures. Page designers love adding detail shots to layouts. You'll be surprised how often spending 5 minutes on making a nice one can net you another hundred bucks on the day.

Next: Lighting 101: Cross Lighting


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Anonymous Bill said...

I'm going to be shooting some photos of photos and one tin-type in a few weeks. These are OLD photos of my ancestors that the currently holder won't let out of her house. I'm using a D70, an I have an SB-800, but the 800 is brand new, and I'm a little intimidated. Any ideas or starting point?

THX in advance

June 25, 2006 10:50 PM  
Blogger David said...

With a tintype, you will basically be shooting a photo where the detail is defined by whether you see a reflection or not. You will probebaly want to shoot with your flash lighting a neutral wall and work your angle so the entire photo would be aimed to pick up the wall's reflection.

Sounds harder than it is.

You can go available light for easy "WYSIWYG," or lock everything down (camera on a tripod, too) and use the TFT screen to check your results to see if you angled the flash right.

My suggestion: Place it near a white wall and tilt it slightly toward the wall to pick up the wall's reflection in your photo. Then light the wall evenly.


June 25, 2006 10:59 PM  
Blogger David said...

As for the old photos, light them in a way that does not light you and your camera, too. Maybe a snoot. Pump them up good, like f/11 or f/16 or so with flash. You will be relatively very dark and will not reflect.

June 25, 2006 11:01 PM  
Blogger Neil Cowley said...

This is a great perspective, but who gets paid by space anymore? I wish I'd shot such images when I was traveling more, and never thought to take out the strobe to sidelight these little details. Thinking from the designers perspective is key though!

November 14, 2006 11:43 PM  
Anonymous Stokes said...

For Bill

I often have to do copy pictures when I on assignment with my paper, usually to collect pictures of people who have recently died, to be used in a 'tribute piece'.

What always works for me, is to stand the photo upright, against my camera bag, or the bottom of a wall. Take the SB800dx off the camera, on a sync lead, set on manual at about 1/64 or even 1/128. The flash set lying on its side on the floor at a distance of maybe 1ft away (depending on the size of the print), at an angle of about 45º from the surface of the picture.

I then take the copy pictures, usually from a distance with an 80-200 zoom, my only other lens is a 17-35, and using a wide too close too a straight sided object can result in the edges of the photo frame appearing to bow and not be straight. I then take a couple of shots and check the screen for exposure and surface glare. After 1 or 2 minor adjustments I'm usually in business, and able to work my way quickly through the pile of copies.

Doing copy pictures on a newspaper can actually be quite a common task, not just for pictures of recently deceased, but also for stories about people who have lost weight dieting, where 'before' pictures are needed alongside the 'after' portrait of the dieter, for stories about lost pets, and for features about people who have been travelling to far away destinations. My technique always works, even with pictures that are glossy or are in glass frames, and the camera's highest sync speed can be used to avoid unwanted colour casts from ambient light sources in the room.

Hope that's of help.

January 19, 2007 7:34 AM  
Anonymous Eleanor Gatewood said...

Howdy David!
In 2003 I was an intern at the Baltimore Sun and I was with you in the studio when we shot Iraqi paper money. I'm in graduate school now and have students of my own and Strobist is a grand resource for us! I had been going to this site for a while before I read the "about" segment (dang...) and volia! Twas you! Horray! Thanks Strobist!

February 26, 2008 11:20 AM  
Anonymous johnny olsen said...

great shot :)

March 11, 2008 3:55 PM  
Blogger mikeboy said...

lighting 101 is really helping me a lot! I love it!

PS: There are a couple of spelling mistakes in this page, perhaps you would like to review it :)

April 14, 2008 8:47 AM  
Blogger Carina said...


Very informative site you have here, I especially like the piece that you've done on textured lighting.

You can check out my Rube Goldberg setup for textured lighting if someone would tell me how to post an image.


June 18, 2008 4:58 PM  
Blogger Carina said...

Hi David,

I loved your piece on textured lighting.

Could someone please tell me how to post a photo of the Rube Goldberg contraption I use to set the flash height?


June 18, 2008 5:25 PM  
Blogger areohbee said...

For photographing photos, I had good results today using two SB-R200s, with the "supermacro" diffusers that come with them, on their sides, about 1 foot away from the photo about 40 degree angle to the photo which was mounted using gaffers tape on a black background, such that no flash light could get back into the lens. Camera about 1.5 feet back with 50mm/1.8 lens set at f5.6 (D300 at lowest ISO) Results were better than using Microtek ScanMaker-5900.

March 01, 2009 6:38 AM  

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