Tabletop Lighting

Whether you’re shooting a documentary, creating a scrapbook or shooting an object for a commercial – you will find a need for tabletop lighting techniques.

If you are a faithful reader of this column, you have a pretty good idea about lighting people's faces and basic three-point lighting. But what about shooting smaller objects sitting on a table? How do you light them to show them at their best? How do you keep the light from glaring off the smooth surfaces or smoothing out the rough surfaces, or from turning everything into a flat, lifeless blob? In this column we will take a look at a variety of scenarios and provide a solid introduction to the fine art of tabletop lighting.

Framed Glass-covered Pictures

In documentaries we often use old still photos to illustrate history and provide credibility to our subject. But what if the photos are encased in glass and can’t be scanned in? Not a problem if you know how to properly light them.

To light a glass-framed photo or document, you need two lights that you can set at flood or diffuse with gel or tough spun, 2 large pieces of flat black posterboard or foamcore and a tripod that allows you to tilt your camera straight down. Place the first black material on a table large enough to support the photographs as well as your tripod. Center the picture on the black surface so that it is level in the viewfinder. Set up your lights on each side of the table at the 9 and 3 positions on the lighting clock. The lights should be at the same distance – about 3 feet above your photo, angled at about a 45 degree angle from the picture. This is called stereo lighting. You are evenly lighting the document or photo from each side so that there are no shadows.

Cut a hole the size of the camera lens in the posterboard or foamcore and set it on four tall kitchen glasses or anything else that will lift it off the table. Carefully set your camera so that the lens is poking through the hole and record the image. Make sure your camera is far enough away from the object to enable you to get a good clear focus. Some cameras require that you be about three feet from the object you are trying to focus in on. If this is the case, you can use light stands to hold the posterboard or foamcore.

How does this setup work? The black posterboard or foamcore will prevent reflections in the glass and give you a clean shot of the document while avoiding any glare in the glass. It should look like you took the glass off the photo. If you need to move in the shot, take some flat black cloth, cut a hole in it, poke the lens through and attach it to the lens hood. Cut a large, rectangular hole in your posterboard and tape the edge of the cloth outside the hole. You now have a movable "hood." Make sure the cloth is completely opaque and loose enough to allow for movement without shifting the posterboard – yet tight enough that it isn’t sagging into your shot. Now you can shoot any glass-covered flat object and magically remove the glass without damaging the document or photo. (See Figure 1.)

Tabletop Tool Kit

To do any type of tabletop lighting, you need some basic gear and tools of the trade. You must have a tripod that allows you to shoot at a variety of angles, including straight down. You will also need at least two lights you can diffuse with frost gel or tough spun. Barn doors attached to the front of your light can be opened or closed to cast a shadow where you want it to fall.

Essential tools for your kit include black foam core of various sizes, a full sheet of white foamcore and a sheet (3′ by 4′) of white posterboard. You may also want aluminum foil to make small reflectors, black gaffer’s tape or other flat black tape and a variety of light stands, clamps, and spring clothes pins (called C-47s in the film industry). For shooting hot food, you may also want a supply of mild incense to add that savory steaming food look! (See Sidebar.)

Tabletop Lighting Basics

Tabletop lighting requires a thorough knowledge of lighting theory. Some of the basics in lighting that are essential:

1. The type of light you use drastically affects the texture of the object.

    a. If you want to see the surface texture of an object, use a small hard light.
    b. If you want the surface to look smooth, use a large soft light.

2. The light’s reflection will be seen in the object as a bright spot called a specular highlight.

    a. On smooth objects, the reflection has a very hard edge and will actually be a mirror image of the light.
    b. On rough objects, the reflection has a very soft, gradual edge.

3. Placing the reflection properly will reveal the shape and increase the three-dimensional look of the object.

4. In all lighting, the shadow is as important as the light. Using the above theory, some imagination and patience, you can easily light any object.


Tabletop Lighting Techniques

What do you do if you have to light a smooth black or shiny surface? Using the idea that all light will reflect back a mirror image of itself, the best way to light these objects is by bouncing light off a white card. The light’s reflection or highlight will actually fill the surface of the object and not create any glaring hot spots. You can even control the intensity of the light so that it gradually falls off, revealing a more three-dimensional shape. For black objects, this method gives the black surface a gray tint without losing the dark black and separates it from a darker background.

You can also light bottles and glasses by reflecting with a bounce card. Instead of harsh bright spots from the direct reflection of the light, you can fill a side of the bottle with the highlight created by the bounced light. For lighting a shiny object with beads of water on it, use a second small hard light a little above and beside the camera to create shiny little spots on the drops. Use glycerin instead of water to create bigger, more defined drops. Make sure the second light is less intense, so it just adds a tiny glint to the droplets for a three-dimensional look.

To read an LCD screen or a watch that is lit using a bounce card, move your hand along the card to find where the shadow falls on the watch face or LCD screen. On the white card, place a piece of gaffer’s tape the shape of the watch face to create a shadow that enables you to see the screen, but doesn’t reduce the light on the rest of the watch or other object.

If your object is very three-dimensional, think of it as a tiny face and use standard three-point lighting with a key back and fill. Use the techniques above for your key and fill lights and don’t forget the background. Grab the flowers left over from Valentine’s Day and shine a light through them to cast a shadow behind your subject – instant texture!

Final Look

Whatever the object, whatever your need, a good imagination and a strong understanding of lighting basics will take you a long way. Paint with light and shadow and don’t forget color! White balance under white lights but add a dash of color to the background or the specular highlight. Bring your images to life and have fun!.

Robert G. Nulph is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.

Side Bar

Hot and Juicy with a Little Help

So you want to make the burger you are shooting look really hot and juicy? Juicy is easy – use a small hard light set up near the camera to give you nice sparkly spectral highlights in the juice (add a bit of water or glycerin if needed). The steam is harder. To see smoke or steam, you have to light it from behind. Place some mild incense sticks behind or in the burger and add a small hard light behind it, just out of the camera shot. If the background is fairly dark and you are careful to flag the light off the front of the smoke, you will get a very nice rising steam.

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