How Can I Photograph an Item on White Without Studio Lights?

How to photograph an item on white background

I adore this vase my daughter made for me, and its shiny surface made it a perfect subject for this exercise.

Good question!

In one of my recent introductory DSLR classes, someone asked me that exact question. Honestly, I really didn’t know how to do it.

I can do it no problem with studio lights by lighting the background more brightly than the object I’m photographing, but she insisted she’d been told there was an easier way to do it, and without even having to buy or make anything to achieve it. Hmmmm.

If you were to place the item on a white background and try to achieve that look with window light coming toward it as your only source, the product might be lit correctly but the background would turn grey rather than white. So, I didn’t really know what to tell her. I knew you could buy or make a little light box, but I was under the impression that you’d still need to direct artificial light into it.

Well, guess what? There is an easy method that hadn’t occurred to me, so when I read about it recently I decided I’d better give it a try.

Here’s What You’ll Need

I’m big on figuring out how to do things in photography without having to spend a bunch of money, if any. Of course, I do realize you need a decent camera, and that probably cost you plenty, but otherwise I used only items that were already in my house. They included:

  • Product setup shotWhite kitchen trash bag
  • Tape
  • Aluminum foil
  • White copy paper
  • Reflective silver items
  • Bag of rice
  • Cereal box

Here is the incredibly glamorous setup I used. I taped the trash bag to the widow (the trash bag is the white background in the products shots) and stretched out the aluminum foil across the table, draping it over a cereal box to create reflection on one side of the vase. On the other side I stuck a shiny silver canister to serve as another reflector.

Without the reflectors, I would probably still have been able to expose the vase correctly, but it wouldn’t have had the nice specular highlights on both sides. The specular highlights are those bright parts on the vase where the shiny surface is reflecting the light. They make it look so much more real and three-dimensional, like you could reach out and pull it right off this page.specular highlights example

Specular highlights example. Look straight up from the arrow on each image to see the difference.

 

Take at look at the side-by-side images above to see the impact it makes on the photo when I removed or kept the canister as a reflector on the left side of the image. In the first example I removed the canister so the alumnum foil draped over the cereal box was the only reflector. In the second example I replaced the canister.

Look straight up along the vase above the arrow in each case. See how the first one is sort of dull and uniformly lit along that part of the vase, and in the second photo it has the specular highlights and looks almost wet? The only difference is the presence or lack of that one reflector. Of course you don’t need to use something round like that canister. That’s just what happened to jump out at me when I was looking around the kitchen for something I could use. Most people would use something flat. I was just improvising with what I had.

So why did I use a bag of rice? Since I don’t have a little table-top tripod, I wanted something to steady my camera on the table and the bag of rice did that for me.

Example with White “Floor” Instead of Silver

product-shot-setup-white-backgroundAfter all this fun, I wanted to grab every little object in the house and photograph it! But I was losing daylight and my daughter was calling from across town for a ride home and it was almost time for the Super Bowl (as if I even knew which teams were playing, but I wanted to see the commercials, you know?), so I had to make it quick. One of my Dad’s old cameras would do the trick.

I took a couple test shots, but I didn’t like how the camera was reflecting onto the foil. This time I used a sheet of typewriter paper for the floor … wait, did I just say “typewriter paper?” Yikes, I guess that old camera did it to me. I also wanted to try a bigger reflective surface, so I propped up a disposable aluminum pan.

exacta-camera-white-backgroundThe resulting image is nice, but upon reflection (no pun intended) I wish I’d pulled the reflector (the aluminum pan) closer to me and angled it back toward the window to create some specular highlights in the glass of the lens or maybe even in the surface of the camera. I might give that a try in the next few days since the bag is still taped to my window, and will report back with those results.

Still, you have to admit it’s pretty cool that we now have a solid white background from just taping a kitchen trash bag to a window. Who’da thunk?

You could certainly use an image of this quality to showcase products on eBay, etsy or wherever else might call for nice product images.

Camera Settings

I took these shots with my Nikon D300 and 50mm f/1.8 lens. The camera was steadied either on the table or on a bag of rice. I set the camera to manual mode and shot these at 200 ISO, f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/60, I believe. I played around with the white balance a bit, ending up at approximately 5,200K. You could achieve a similar setting by setting your white balance to Daylight, although you might have to play around with it depending on how much light you have in your room.

I shot these in RAW and did very minor tweaks in Lightroom. I adjusted the color temperature just a tad, and I believe I might have fooled with the curves in the Exacta camera image. But I did absolutely nothing to the white background or the floor. They looked exactly the same straight-out-of-camera as it does here. Honestly, while fine-tuning the images in Lightroom or Photoshop will help give them the most professional polish, I was surprised to find that as long as your exposure is right they would be fine for many if not most purposes straight out of camera.

marylynneashley@gmail.com'

Author: Mary Lynne

Mary Lynne Ashley has been a professional photographer since 2001. She spends her time teaching photography, photographing dogs (primarily as a volunteer for a rescue organization), and operating her amazing photo booth inside a cute red 1971 VW bus -- the Photo Love Bus. The best way to get in touch is through email at marylynneashley@gmail.com.

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