I was excited recently to have the opportunity to photograph our kitchen knives for our recent post on our five favorite kitchen tools. This presented an opportunity for me to do something new. I knew right away I wanted to photograph them on a black surface and have a nice, brightly lit blade. I also had in mind I wanted to use two lights. I did a quick internet search to get a better idea of how to go about it, and I came across this picture by Nick Wheeler. He even provided a demonstration of his lighting setup. I love his idea of using a whiteboard as a reflector, if I ever come across one of those kinds of whiteboards on the cheap I’m buying it.
In this post I will demonstrate a very simple 2 light lighting setup, my take on the lighting setup that Nick Wheeler used.
Our first light, the softbox (with a Speedflash in it), acts as the key light, providing the direction and texture. The second light is the fill. I used it bare, but I bounced it off of the ceiling, just like Nick had bounced his off of the whiteboard.
I chose to position the key light behind the knives. The main reason I did this was to get the light reflected off off the knives in such a way as the blades would appear almost white. It helps to think of the knives as small mirrors. In order for them to appear white I had to make sure the reflection of the softbox completely filled the little mirrors in the view of the camera.
To do this requires putting the light within what is called the “Family of Angles.” Light within the family of angles will be reflected off of our subject into the camera lens. In this diagram, light A is within our family of angles, light b is outside.
In practice it turned out to be more difficult to arrange light A to meet my goal. My final photograph came up a bit short. If I had a boom arm for my softbox I could have moved the box in closer and gotten more light coverage on the knives. Or another option would have been to bounce the light off of a large white poster board, sheet or paper to get a much larger light. The problem with that is that the larger our surface, the more light required to do the job and I was already pushing the power limits of the flash.
The role of the second light was to make sure there was still detail apparent in the shadows. David Hobby of Strobist talks a lot about how he uses fill in portraits. In portrait photography, you would put the fill light directly in front of the model (perhaps just behind the photographer). The fill light fills in the shadows and also covers area that the key light is lighting. This is okay because the key light is more powerful than the fill and you still get your interesting textures and while maintaining your shadow.
With food photography “directly in front” is not usually behind the photographer, but up above the subject. If the food is looking anywhere, it’s looking up. This is also true for the products I’m shooting here. It makes bouncing off the ceiling an almost perfect solution. In our house our only problem is that we have a twelve foot ceiling so it ends up being a bit far away and a lot of light gets wasted. That’s why I put my light on a stand and set it pretty close to the ceiling.
You might also notice the window behind my setup and if that is another light source in our picture. The answer is no, or we would have some distracting double shadows going on. Any effect by the light coming in from the window is wiped out by the powerful flashes. If it were causing problems I would definitely have closed my blinds.
So that’s one lighting setup I like to use. I highly recommend trying it out. If you are interested in learning how to light difficult surfaces for photography, or about the principles of lighting for photography, I highly recommend the book Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting by Fil Hunter and Steven Biver. It will change the way you see light.