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Desktop Photography

Backgrounds & Lighting

Dennis Curtin Some thought should be given to the background you use. It should be one that makes your subject jump out, and not overwhelm it. The safest background to use is a sheet of neutral gray poster board that can be formed into a curved "L" shape to give a nice smooth grdation of light behind the image. It's safe, because it reduces potential exposure problems and most things show well against it. Other options include black or white backgrounds but they may cause some exposure problems unless you can use exposure compensation.

Finally their are colored backgrounds, but these should be selected to support and not clash with the colors in the subject.

The texture of the background is also a consideration. For example, black velvet has no reflections at all while black posterboard might.


The lighting on small objects is just as important as it is for normal subjects. Objects need to be illuminated properly to bring out details and colors well. You can light a subject in several ways, depending on your objectives. A flat object needs to be illuminated evenly; an object with low relief, such as a coin needs to be cross-lit to bring out details; some objects might look better with the diffuse lighting provided by a light tent (see below).

Electronic flash can freeze action and increases depth of field. Your options are varied, limited only by your willingness to experiment.

Keep in mind that the color of the light you use to illuminate an object may affect the colors in the final image. Tungsten bulbs will give it an orange cast and fluorescent lights will give it a green cast. You'll have to experiment with this aspect since many digital cameras have a built-in automatic white balance that compensates for this. In other cases, you may find that you like the artificial colors or you may be able to adjust them in you image editing program.

Using a Reflector to Lighten Shadows

When the light illuminating a small subject casts hard, dark shadows, you can lighten the shadows by arranging reflectors around the subject to bounce part of the light back onto the shadowed area. You can use almost any relatively large, flat reflective object, including cardboard, cloth, or aluminum foil (crumpling the foil to wrinkle it, then opening it out again works best. Position the reflector so that it points toward the shadowed side of the subject. As you adjust the angle of the reflector, you will be able to observe its effects on the shadows. Use a neutral-toned reflector if you are photographing in color.

Using a Light Tent

One way to bathe a subject in soft, even lighting--particularly useful for highly reflective subjects such as jewelry--is by using a simple light tent. The object is then surrounded by a translucent material which is lit from the outside. If the subject is small enough, you can use a plastic gallon milk bottle with the bottom cut out and the top enlarged for the camera lens. When positioned over the subject and illuminated by a pair of floodlights, the light inside the bottle is diffused by the translucent sides of the bottle. The result is a very even lighting of the subject.

Larger subjects require larger light tents. You can construct a wooden frame and cover it with cloth or plastic sheets. When illuminated from outside by two or more floodlights, the light within the tent will be diffuse and nondirectional.

Using Flash

There are two important reasons to use flash in tabletop photography, With flash, you can use smaller apertures for greater depth of field, and extremely short bursts of light at close distances prevents camera or subject movement from causing blur. To use electronic flash with predictable results takes a little effort and you may need to practice and experiment. There are two problems you might want to consider and overcome:

Direct on-camera flash doesn't give a picture the feeling of texture and depth that you can get from side-lighting. Most point and shoot digital cameras don't allow you to remove the flash and hold it in a different position.

The exposure may not be correct if the meters the exposure using a built-in sensor. The sensor measures a small field of view and the sensor and lens may see slightly different views as discussed in the parallax section above.

Special thanks to Dennis Curtin

for sharing this information and his professional expertise.

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