Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Lighting Highly Reflective Objects

We needed to create uniform lighting design for a large trophy collection with different shapes, sizes, and degrees of reflective and curved surfaces.

The trophies saw everything around it, nearly 280 degrees in all directions!

The object was to shoot the each individual trophy rotating, static, and extreme close-up detail shots and inscriptions against black. Also, because of the high expense of these trophies, we had to shoot them in their gallery, not in a studio. Time was a factor; we couldn't do a new set-up for every trophy.

Our solution: A continuous sheet of trace paper wrapped around the front and sides with Juniors into them. 12 x 12 griff over the top with lights bouncing into it. White painted floor. Camera lens poked into one small whole 12 feet away to hide the camera and minimize the black dot the hole we created.

Problem: Trophies saw every wrinkle, seem, dot, lens, shadow, etc. On the ECU shots it really saw things in detail; on the ECU shots you could read the writing on a mafer that was ten feet away (not quite, but close--you get the idea) On some trophies it saw the line where the overhead griff met the trace paper .

Anybody have ideas on how to do it next time?

Chris Fournelle
Director / D.P.


A client I'm currently shooting for a lot does golf club spots, so I end up lighting a lot of golf clubs. Try lighting chrome putters that are rotating. Problems very similar to those you faced. I tend to use bounce sources rather than diffusion. I also alternate black areas with white areas.

The contrast give form and shape -- if I just do white the curves tend to flatten out. You can also hide the camera in a dark area. Then all metal fittings can be wrapped in black fabric or white camera tape. Slow going but when it's done it's nice to hear the clients moan with joy.

Marty Mullin DP
Studio City

It sounds like the similar problem of lighting a car. The solution is usually to use things like Fisher lights and Chimeras so that the reflective surface does not see any grip equipment, just the light box. The rest of the area should be black.

I suppose the complete opposite approach would be to NOT light the objects.

I had to shoot a scene in a coffee shop which involved a man staring into one of those chrome-domed garbage cans like at Starbucks. Since the dome was like a mirrored globe, seeing everything, I ended up shooting the shot with a 300mm lens and going with natural window light for the scene rather than trying to find a way of hiding everything.

A similar idea is done in car commercials when they shoot the car at twilight outside so that the sky is providing a soft overhead source reflecting over the surfaces.

David Mullen
Cinematographer / L.A.

A couple of suggestions come to mind ... there are several manufacturers of dome-shaped fabric "tents" made out of diffusion cloth and constructed the same way a Chimera softbox is. I've not seen one yet that didn't have the support poles flush on the outside of the fabric, which is a problem when it comes to reflections of these poles in reflective objects.

I would be inclined to scour through a couple camping catalogs to find a suitable sized tent, the kind that have their support poles *suspended* a few inches away by a fabric sleeve (through which these support poles pass) from the surface fabric of the domed tent. Find a suitable diffusion fabric, from Chimera?, Photoflex? Call the camping tent manufacturer and see if they would be willing to make you a "one-up" tent using their design and your fabric. (You may want to check around first, it would seem likely that *somebody* has finally made a "lighting tent" the way they should be made that keeps the reflections of the poles out of your objects.)

With this "tent" you have a starting point. You will find that you need to light this diffusion tent with diffused light sources in order to prevent hot spots. Additionally, you will have a tent door through which you shoot these objects. The reflections back through this "shooting door" need to be addressed with something, a 4x8 foamcore with a hole for the lens is one solution, though foamcore is about 3 points red/yellow.

We stillies use units of color called decamirads, 3 decamirads is not much at all, it's close to the threshold of what you can see on film.

You do want to be careful so as to not do too good of a job lighting objects like these too perfectly. Their surface form is what defines them visually and requires "highlights" and "shadows".

Last thing that should help you some, if you can do it. You say you where shooting at 12ft. It sounds like you had DoF(ield) from "here to eternity". I'd tighten up these kinds of shots so as to just carry the DoF you need for the object, with none to spare. Fuzzy focus cures all sorts of odd reflections. The real fun starts when you discover that the surface curves of the object itself can act as a "lens" that has a mind of it's own.

Cliff Hancuff
Clear Day Software

Yes, you would as the surface of the award is acting as a convex mirror.

Have you tried Antiflare or spraying the awards with milk to produce a diffuse surface? OK, it's cheating but I believe that this is what museums do when they want to photograph the engraving on the surface of silver objects. This is easier that trying to build a tent with perfectly even reflections.

Brian Rose

Others have given good suggestions on how to light reflective objects. It sounds like the setup needed to be a little more anal. But also at the risk of sounding callus and unprofessional, It might be a case where YOU know that it's a line where the overhead griff meets the trace paper but %99 of the population would not. They may not even see it as a bad thing.

I would also think a still might need more care than any time transient medium because of actual "study time" allowed.

Take care,

Eric Swenson

One problem with the solution here is the difference in densities between the 1000H and the griflon. That's going to be readily apparent in the surface.

You're better off sticking with one density of material for specular reflections.

As was already said - it's best to play with black and white as opposed to just white. My approach to this would probably have been bleached muslin (most likely in 20x sizes) and a ton of duvetyn. Use the duvetyn to define the shape of the trophy by creating areas of specular contrast between the white and black -- but keep in mind that if you're rotating the trophy that your specular areas won't be moving, but the object will. This might mean that you'd want to layer in your duvetyn in a very organic manner so that no matter what side or angle of the trophy was shown to the lens, the specular contrasts would still be pleasing. I've always been very pleased with the Onita (I believe that's the spelling) silverware adds in magazines. They're taking this approach with highly polished spoons and they simply stripe a black line or a black and a gray to create gradations into their white specular highlights... Check them out.

All the best,

Jay Holben

Bet you a can of dulling spray that those still images spent a fare amount of time in the hands of a retouch artist.

There is no easy way to shoot this stuff, having spent a fair amount of time "way back when" doing table top stills. Just look at the day rates of table top and food shooters as an indication of the degree of difficulty.

To add to the usefull comments from others, I've had sucess with an additional element of a tent made from sheer fabric, wrapped several times around the table and gathered at the top like a mosquito net.
This further diffuses the light from bounce sources, and the folds give interesting variation to the reflections as well as obscuring the details of undesirable but unavoidable reflections.

Glenn Suprenard Dir/DP
Matinee Pictures

I would tend to approach this differently as I've tried the bigger is better approach and it gets real big, real quick. I would start much smaller with foam core and work as close as possible to the trophies. Black and white foam core with a cut out hole for the lens can be used either way. Then use additional B&W foam core and circle the trophies as close to the trophies as possible to theback edges of your frame. Tape the seams with 2" white gaffers tape. The foam core and trophies can be lit with a double diffused, clean, frame with a light (5K?) behind it and incorporate it into the foam core walls with white taped seams. Add a top foam core ceiling and some creatively placed black. The black background should be as close as possible(and stay black) to minimize unwanted reflections from the rear.

The advantage to working close is that you don't need to get as big with the whites and need not nearly as many lights. Especially important when you get into the wonderful world of macro and f16 gives you only 1/4" of DOF. ;-) A few years ago I had a shoot which involved shooting every watch in a retailers line and found this approach worked great especially on the chrome Tags.

Hope this helps, as anyone who has been in this type of lighting situation knows it can be difficult and frustrating. FWIW-I recently saw a white plexiglass dome at a modelmakers that was almost like a circle cut in half.
It was about 4' in diameter and my first thought was it would make a good reflection pod for tabletop reflection problems such as this.

Jim Sofranko

One of the singularly best tips I ever got for lighting mirrored surfaces like spoons was to bounce light off a sheet of brushed aluminum.

Bowing or twisting this aluminum sheet creates a variegated light that can't be produced any other way. This lighting keeps silver metal objects looking like they are metal, rather than white. Formica now makes brushed aluminum sheets in 4x8 sizes that are much cheaper and more flexible than the real thing.

I learned this trick from a since deceased still life photographer over 20 years ago. Other than when I've done it, I've not seen it used since. The time may be right to reintroduce this lighting gem into one's repertoire. It works magic.

Cliff Hancuff
Clear Day Software

Beware the Fakery of the Airbrush! Many efx achieved in stills are not found in the original photography.

On the subject of specular reflections, I once, years ago, was Assistant Cameraperson for a guy who was charged with shooting a commercial for CBS Sports ... The Superbowl Trophy.

When it arrived we were disappointed to see how scratched up and nicked it really was! We played around for hours with tents of velveteen and muslin, etc., using both reflected and transmitted light.

Shooting at a narrow depth of field (T2.8 in 35 mm) really helped disguise the hardware reflected in the surface, although not much could be done about the scratches. We kept the trophy and the camera in motion as much as possible (lazy susan and boom arm on the dolly) which helped somewhat.

Also, you might find that strips of show card (black / White / Silver) stapled to blocks of wood and propped up on the table in front of the trophy can help add the detail Jay Holben likes to see reflected in his shiny spoons.

Joe Di Gennaro


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