On Assignment: Shoot Your Shiny New Gizmo Like a Pro

About six weeks ago, I posted an article about how to make a darn-near free macro studio. I included photos of a flower/phone/radio/etc on white poster board.

What I saw afterwards was (mostly) a lot of small things on a white infinity sweep. But the point of the little el cheapo contraption was that it could be used to create many different lighting schemes.

So today, I wanted to do a shoot using a the same type of lighting box to get a completely different look. This is the typical type of thing you might need to shoot for a quickie product shot, to throw some shiny new gizmo up on your blog (in style) or for an eBay auction.

In case you forgot and missed the link above, here's how to make it.

For this shot, we'll be isolating the subject by using a black reflective surface. You might think a mirror would be better, but you'd be off base. A mirror reflects from the rear surface, unless it is an expensive and fragile "front-surface" mirror. So there would be a double reflection from this oblique angle.

Today, our gizmo will be sitting on 144 square inches of polished black granite, courtesy Home Depot's tile aisle.

Total damages: $5.49.

Gotta love scoring photo gear at The Big Orange Store.

The polished top surface will reflect the black background nicely if we shoot from a low angle, allowing is to light the subject and everything else on two different planes.

This is pretty cool, as the subject is resting on something that can now hold a tone or color completely different from what would happen if the camera were sitting on, say, poster board. You'll want black, so the tile's color won't bleed through.

At top is a vertical photo of a Nikon Coolpix L4, which is my wife's garden-variety point-and-shoot digital camera. I chose it as a subject because it is reflective (which can make something more difficult to shoot) and has a complex surface.

I am going to walk through a series of photos, explaining the changes that lead to the progression of looks.

First off is a swap from vertical to horizontal orientation. And I figured it would be better to have the Freudian part extended for the shot, too.

The first stab at this is with a light coming in each diffused panel pretty equally.

You can adjust the lighting angle by rotating the whole box under the subject by up to about 30 degrees in either direction. Then simply turn the subject to compensate.

I like the way the left light defines the left side of the camera, making it look three-dimensional. But I have plans for the second light. So I have to illuminate the left side some other way.

This does it with one light on the right, and a fill card card (a folded piece of white paper) placed just out of the frame in the camera-left front of the subject.

A little counter-clockwise rotation helps me to pick up the reflection of the right diffusion panel in the front of the camera lens at right. Which now proves that there is, in fact, glass in there. Better than the black hole in the earlier frame.

So, now that I am doing all of this with one light (an ugly, hard light before we gussied it up) I am free to play with my background with the second light.

Here's a wide shot showing the overall look after adding a sheet of cheap blue craft foam (coulda been paper) for a background.

Total damages: $0.59 at local craft store.

Note that the diffusion is out in the left panel. I have the left flash dialed way down and it is lighting the background directly. You see the fill reflector piece of paper here, too.

It is important to mention that I could have done this with two plain old desk lamps, too. Just balance to tungsten, tripod the (shooting) camera and move the lights in or out to alter the lighting ratio.

We keep the background light from contaminating the subject with a piece of cardboard as a gobo, as seen here. The aiming is easy if you sight it from the direction of the background light, which is also what I did for this explanatory shot.

No modeling lights needed. Just use line of sight.

So, here's the effect with the background light added. Blue always connotes tech to me for some reason. But you could use anything.

IMO, this is fairly nuanced light for two small sources, a piece of tile and a cardboard box.

This little light box is a frugal, felxible, go-to piece of gear that works as well for small-product catalog shooters as it does for eBay'ers.

Long story short, if you are willing to learn to play with the $10 DIY Macro Studio, it'll earn its meager keep by delivering small object photos with impact.

Next: How To Light A Comet


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Anonymous Micah said...

I seem to recall (from Photo I class) playing with that shiney mylar stuff as a first surface mirror. It was bendable and reflective and had lots of potential for a couple of bucks at the art supply store.

August 29, 2006 8:02 AM  
Anonymous BillNPhoto said...

This is a great idea with one problem. Here in Mass neither Lowe's or Home Depot carry the black tiles, but they will order you a box of them. I am going to try painting a white tile with gloss black paint and see how it works.

August 29, 2006 5:48 PM  
Blogger photoshopabuser said...

billnphoto...I have also used a chunk of plexiglass from HD and it also picks up the background color. Just make sure it is cleaned off though as it will reflect every little imperfection.

August 29, 2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger Gary W. said...

Thanks for teaching an old dog new tricks...

About a year ago I went on my own to persue my future in photography, that means I have very little in the way of funding. Despite what people think, having your own business takes time to culitvate. Anyway, This is an awesom alternitive to a price light tent or box that I had never considered and it's variable in size dependant on the box you use. It's a stroke of genius. Keep up the awesome work.

September 02, 2006 11:47 PM  
Anonymous Amy said...

This is really fantastic! Macro photography is my favorite, but the lighting conditions can be extremely difficult to achieve. Thank you for this entry!

November 27, 2006 9:49 AM  
Anonymous ElCapitano said...

Hi all,
I came along this page a few days ago.
Did order a second EX580 and it has arrived.
I did check out the softbox mentioned in the article above.
Very impressive...
thanks, will soak in the other stuff.
Did check the Softbox with Tupper. That was a great idea. Spend 1.99EUR on the boxes (4 of them in total)
Ok, that's it 4 now
Greetings from Grmany

December 29, 2006 6:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this informative posting. I am an absolute novice with cameras in general and digital camera specifically. I have just purchased a digital camera to make photos for online selling so this is just perfect. Actually got most understanding out of the photos here as the language is technical for me (I even had to look up "IMO"!)
Take care, Joan

February 11, 2007 9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are such a stitch. You had me laughing from the very beginning. Not to mention I learned SO MUCH from you. You are wonderful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and THANK YOU for not being a stuffed shirt kinda guy. You are such a gifted teacher and writer. You made it easy for me to understand photography; I'm the carpenter of the family! The whole reason why I found your website was because I am in the dog house, trying to find a way to make it up to my wife. How perfect it was to find your site because she has a HUGE interview on Saturday and now she can take pictures with her $10 macro tent thing and impress her future boss, all thanks to you!

You rock, man.
I owe you one!

March 15, 2007 3:20 PM  
Blogger Peter Bryenton said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that good lighting does not need to cost a fortune:


Nice work with the cardboard box, thanks.

Peter Bryenton

April 01, 2007 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Maria Palma said...

I'm lovin' this resource! Thanks so much for all the great tips ;) Keep up the great work...

April 22, 2007 3:36 PM  
Blogger Christophe said...

Another great article! Just tried this setup for myself after getting my 'shiny new gizmo' :-) Turned out great!!

June 16, 2007 10:06 AM  
Blogger Patti and Larry White said...

i cannot find the granite! lowes and home depot have some that has specks in it..im sure you didnt use that. of course they arent much help other than 'thats all we have'. ill have to look at a tile/flooring place i spose

January 29, 2008 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Plain glass will work also. Order a piece of "table top" glass from a glass store, about $10-15 a sq ft.

March 03, 2008 2:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to a few stores to find tiles that were pure black. The biggest tile store I could find in the capital of Norway had them! So keep looking!

May 13, 2008 5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I thought your light box was great. I was just wandering how u would go about photographing jewellery as it very reflective. Would u need to take the photos from the top and if so how would u go about it.
AO from Australia

July 02, 2008 12:24 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hm, cannot find this tile at any of the Home Depot stores (been to maybe four) in Los Angeles & Orange counties! :(

September 07, 2008 3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why mess with tiles. Do it like the car photo pros - use a tank of water! its only needs to be shallow. Set your object on a small plinth and fill tank v.carefully and let it settle so no ripples. Don't knock your object into tank or you're in big trouble!

October 10, 2008 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Bongodopey said...

This is a fantastic set up, however it is very simple to get the mirrored effect without using a tile, mirror or other reflective surfaces, but by doing it post production in photoshop. Take a picture of the item on black or whit poster board as the author describes and in photo-shop there is a very simple way of creating that mirrored effect. when I first say the example picture I thought that was what you had done! I have uploaded a video onto youtube detailing how to. Just search for bongodopey, mirror image, photoshop.

October 24, 2008 8:10 AM  
Blogger Chris Mercurio said...

What did you use for the back? I bought black poster board for the back but it turns out gray and washed out when I take the shot...did you do any post prod.? Doesn't look anything like your pictures even though I pretty much copied your building instructions.

January 29, 2009 11:59 PM  
Blogger joel said...

Chris, he probably used a snoot or gobo on the right flash to keep the light off the background. That's just my guess.
And I absolutely love this idea. The black granite does seem to be the easiest way to get the nice reflection and the blue background is great. I think it would be funny to do something like this with a fridge box and put my 5-month old son in there :)

March 05, 2009 8:20 AM  
Blogger josephacote said...

Another quick and easy way to have a simple reflection is to use glass or plexiglass with black posterboard underneath. The subject will leave a natural reflection on the glass and the effect is beautiful and easy to change with different color posterboards under the glass. Or, if you want a wonderful shot with no reflection, you can cut another hole in the bottom of the cardboard and place the glass over the hole, then just add a bounce card under the glass six inches or so below.

June 26, 2009 3:58 PM  
Blogger victor said...

even if he used a gobo or anything to block the light before hit the diffuser, the diffuser will make the light to hit the BG anyway. I do not understand how he got that perfect black BG.

July 08, 2009 10:52 AM  
Blogger Tomás |Ð| said...

Hey mate, this is awesome! However, I have a question. How is this better than photoshopping the photo, if I can achieve exactly the same result?

[and I'm definitely making that lightbox =D]

September 07, 2009 1:13 PM  
Blogger Gia Fragalli said...

thank you thank you thank you!!!!

ive been killing myself trying to get the shots for my jewelry, first try even used a sheet of pure silver worth 600 bucks... but that didnt make any difference (the silver will be used for other things but i thought it be a nice prop...)

i searche ebay, amazon and something called ezcube, but they all talk about lighting, and lamps and this and that, at the end of it my shopping cart was almost at $200!

closed all my tabs and by some miracle found u!



September 30, 2009 1:29 AM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

Great post. Black shiny tiles are a favorite surface of mine too. To those who asked "why not photoshop?", it simply doesn't look as good and because of the slightly different angles of incidence, the reflection isn't exactly the same, which makes the PS solution look fake and tacky from a mile away.

Fenix Fotography| www.fenixfoto.com

October 20, 2010 2:53 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

Hi Nd thanks for all the top tips. Several people asked but I don't really understand the replies or know if they are correct. "How do you get the black background?" Grateful for a steer in the right direction. Simon

February 12, 2014 9:43 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Hi Simon-

Sorry if it wasn't clear. But FYI I started with a black background for the top pics, then moved to a blue background during the shoot as stated. The BTS shot showed the background after the swap, which might have been confusing.


February 15, 2014 9:27 AM  

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