Create a Purely White Background
Photographing your product on a purely white background will help you create great looking catalogs and promotional photographs for magazines. The technique you'll learn below demonstrates how you can create a light-box for photographing objects on top of an illuminated surface, which makes the objects appear to be floating weightlessly in a white space.
What You’ll Need
- Plexiglas or Glass
- White Paper such as craft paper
1. Create the Background
The first thing is to set up a pair of tables that are the same height. The tables should be placed close enough together that you will be able to rest your piece of glass on top of them and not worry about the glass falling. Leave yourself room behind the tables so you can move around to set up and adjust the positioning of items.
My piece of glass in 16 inches so my tables are 14 inches apart to keep them from falling if, or more likely when, I bump the table.
When you have your tables in position, place a light down low facing up. This light will shine upward to illuminate the backdrop from below and behind. It is a good idea to clamp the light in place or brace it with other items. Be careful when placing the light so that you don’t stress the light’s cord too much to damage it. Once the tables and bottom light are in place, set your glass across the span between them.
Next we will create a seamless backdrop using white paper, such as craft paper, that will allow some light to pass through it. Start by taping the paper down at the front and unroll it toward the back wall creating a nice, smooth arc. Then cut the paper from the roll and tape it in place.
Go ahead and switch on your bottom light. You now have a light box that has a seamless sweep behind it. Adjust the positioning of the light to maximize the illumination of the sweep, making sure the lighting is even.
If you are photographing items that are flat or less three-dimensional, you can skip making the sweep and photograph from overhead on to a flat light table.
2. Light the Background From Above
Now that you have the background in place and lit up, it is time to light the subject. Go ahead and place your object onto the sweep. This is also a great time to set up your camera and compose the image. This way you will be able to look through the viewfinder and create test images as you adjust the lighting.
Place a light above and in front of the subject. This light will keep the front of your subject brightly lit. It helps to position it while the bottom light is turned off. Look for the subject to be evenly illuminated on the areas that the camera will see. Once the top light is situated, turn on both lights.
Now we have to balance the levels of illumination so that the image has smooth tones and accurate details. If the bottom light is too intense, the edges of the object will start to disappear. If you have too much top light, the subject can cast an unwanted shadow or the background will start to appear less bright.
To perform this balancing act, you have to change the intensity of one or both lights. I am using continuous fluorescent lights that have only two settings, off or on, so I accomplish this by placing a sheet of paper between the top light and subject. The paper reduces the amount of light that passes through it so less light reaches the subject. If you are using strobes or lights that have dimmers, it is possible to adjust the lights in small increments
3. Set Exposure and White Balance
It is important to have your color balance set accurately. Here I will use my camera’s custom white balance. To set the custom white balance, select that option in your camera’s menu and use a gray card to adjust the white balance.
Exposure is always tricky when your subject is back lit and the illuminated surface can frequently fool a camera’s built-in light meter. I prefer to use the manual mode (M) and my light meter reading. If you don’t have a light meter, use a gray card and your camera’s internal meter to get a good exposure setting.
For more information on using a gray card, here is a great tutorial on using a gray card.
4. Take Your Photographs
You are finally ready to take your photos. Your background should appear white and the edges should not be gray. Your subject should appear to be floating and not cast a shadow. If the images don’t look quite right, check over the settings and repeat the previous steps. Once everything is dialed in, you can photograph as many objects on your light-box as you need to without changing the setup.
5. Adjust the Photos in Adobe Photoshop
Once the photo session is over, there are a few simple corrections and adjustments in Adobe Photoshop that can be done to make your photographs even more compelling.
The first tool we will use is the Color Sampler tool. This tool will help us watch the color of the background so we can ensure that it is purely white. Select the Color Sampler tool which is found in the fly-out menu under the Eyedropper tool. Then click in the image to drop sampling points to watch. The areas at the top and bottom of the image will need to be checked to make sure the light has not fallen off that area.
Place a Color Sampler in each corner and top and bottom center. For each Color Sampler point, you will see in the Information window three rows with values for red, green and blue (R,G,B) and for each row you will see two numbers something like 235/245. These correspond to the values for each channel and differing values make different colors. The color we are looking for is white which equals 255 on each R,G,B channel.
The first adjustment we will make is to the Levels. Find the Adjustment panel and click on the Levels button. This will adjust the tones in the image to look more like the original item. The levels adjustment shows a histogram that has three sliders under it.
We will begin by adjusting the slider for the light areas of the image. Take the slider found on the left side and slide it to the right until it meets the histogram graph. This will darken the darker areas of the image.
Next, take the slider on the right side and slide it to the left until it meets the histogram graph. This will brighten the light areas of the image. Here is where you watch the Color Sample values and adjust until the sampled areas are white and read 255 in each of the R,G,B channels
The third slider lies under the center of the histogram and adjusts the overall brightness of the image. If your image looks too light or dark, try adjusting the center slider slightly left or right.
The second adjustment we will make is to sharpen the image using the Smart Sharpen filter. Zoom in to 100% on the image. Then, go up the Filter menu in Photoshop and find the Sharpen option. Select the Smart Sharpen option in the sub-menu. I usually set the overall amount to somewhere around 180% or to where the surface texture becomes enhanced. I will set the radius at 2.5 pixels (or thereabouts) to further enhance detail. The goal with with this adjustment is to enhance the details and make the image look more pleasing.
That’s it! You just made an image on a purely white backdrop by creating your own light-box. You now have a photograph you can submit to a magazine or blog for a feature. Here is a look at my final image.
The beauty of this setup is that it's flexible, repeatable, and produces a clear and clean image with minimal fuss. Here are the key steps again:
- Create the background
- Light the background from above
- Set white balance and exposure
- Take your photos
- Adjust photos in Adobe Photoshop
And that's it!
The lit-from-below background isn't suitable for every product. Sometimes you'd like to show the shadow, or maybe you don't have two suitable lights to use. The previous tutorial in this series shows how to photograph a 3D object, like a ceramic mug, on a white background using one light.