DT&G Magazine Photography Department
The Design Center / & Photographic / In-House Photo Studio / Lighting & Diffusers  

Building an in-house photo studio, continued

Diffusers & Reflectors

soft lighting usually the best lighting

You'll need diffusion to break up the light. Remember I said forget about flash?

Diffusers give you soft, natural light... flash gives you harsh, hard-edged light -- and rude, dark shadows. I've been known to tape a piece of facial tissue over the flash of a camera just to soften the light. In your studio, diffusion will give you the professional look. The diffuser hangs between the light and the subject. (See: Dennis Curtin's detail on lighting)

The world of diffusers is both fun and easy. Hard-core do-it-yourselfers will simply hang a sheet from the ceiling. Check out the local fabric store and look for sheer sheets, or even gauze materials. There are several dozen varieties to choose from. (#7 in diagram)

For the more ambitious, make a PVC or wire frame and stretch the fabric across it. You can buy diffuser material from your photo store which they say is manufactured from an expensive secret material specifically calibrated for photo use -- which they buy discounted from the sheet company.

The photo studio set Once you get into this you can experiment too... try "ice" plastic from the hardware store (used for shower doors), or perhaps just some 1/8" mild acrylic. For exotic shots try Venetian blinds! (See "Desk Set" story in an upcoming issue.)

Sometimes an umbrella is used. This is an umbrella shaped light/flash/strobe holder that has a relective surface on the inside. Many times press photographers carry these because they fold up easily and can be used in case it rains. Umbrellas give a different kind of light and shouldn't be confused with a soft box, but they work quite nicely.

I've seen a regular umbrella used as well... use a white one and spray paint the inside of it with a heavy coating of silver spray paint. Now aim the video light up into the silver insides of the umbrella. Not as good as the $90 kind, but it works.

You need diffuse light to avoid hot spots on the subject or deep, hard shadows around and behind the subject.


To reflect light back onto the subject. Sometimes called "fill" light, a properly placed reflector adds a little light into the shadow areas of the subject without looking like it was lighted. Reflectors are fun, but more on that later. (#5 in diagram)

Get a couple pieces of foam-core. Cover one with aluminum foil. Your art store can show you a whole selection of various reflective foamcore products. White reflectors are best, IMHO, because they're a bit softer. (Don't miss Dennis Curtin's insight on reflectors!)

The last thing to consider before we actually build our studio is a backdrop..


Backdrops: You can buy a stunning array of backdrop material. For most small objects that we want to shoot and then "outline" (remove the background) I simply use a #2 gray roll paper available in various widths. Check the local paper merchant who supplied papers and art supplies to schools and meat wrapping paper to the butcher. They should have rolls up to 48" wide. You can also buy the same thing from the photo supply stores... called "backdrop paper" for only about three times as much.

Backdrops should 'curve' to the floor or table top to eliminate the corner where wall meets floor. (#2 in diagram)

For very small objects; watches, coins, toys, food products, packaging and so forth you don't even need to get that extravagant. Pay a visit to the local printer with the biggest printing press. Take along a story about a major catalog project and you'd like some sample press sheets in 80 to 100lb. Vellum or Text weights. Hopefully they have numerous selections on the floor at 26 x 40 size. These work fine, and come in lots of flavors. (See "Williamsburg" shoot story in a future issue.)

Make sure you get a #2 gray. What's a #2 gray? Looks sort of like 20% gray screen. You'll want that for anything you plan to shoot on "white". A light gray is best so that you can expose correctly for the object and avoid "flare" into the object caused by pure white.

You'll see that slightly 'over' exposed shots drive deeper into the shadow detail of the object and will help the overall gamma of the scan later. All colors also 'read' better against gray. (So the pros say.) In most of our photography where you 'think' you see white, you're actually seeing a #2 gray that's been blown away to white. (Don't miss Dennis Curtin's piece on backdrops!)

Gradient BackdropGive a call out to Baltimore Display and ask for a catalog. (301 - 685 - 3393). They offer an array of (screen printed) graduated backdrops that are wonderful. Black to white, colors to white, colors to black, etc. You can also get these at the commercial art supplies stores or Photography supply houses but they charge a little more. Letraset/Pantone makes the same thing for about four-times as much. You could always make your own with a can of spray paint, but I don't recommend it. (Better get two cans.)

These are fantastic for simulating the photo setups in large studios where the foreground of the object is lighted dropping off to solid black. (Called "limbo") You'd need a studio 50-feet deep to achieve the same effect without the graduated backdrop. (In this Photo-shoot we used such a backdrop for the pottery shot and the back cover. You can read the article here.

Okay... now let's build the studio.


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