Lighting for Tabletop Photography
By Emily Horne and Kayla Torres (pictured above)– Photographers, Rio Grande Photo Studio
In the May RioPro Newsletter, Emily Horne explained how to set up a tabletop photography studio, including tips and tricks on backgrounds, lighting and post-processing. In our June newsletter, Kayla Torres walked you through carefully styling your jewelry on displays. In this third and final installment from Rio's Photo Studio, Emily and Kayla have teamed up to dive deeper into lighting, with several tips and tricks on how to light your pieces, minimize reflection and achieve a beautifully illuminated photograph.
BEFORE (left): Silver ring with overhead light and no reflector.
AFTER (right): Silver ring with V-shaped reflector bouncing light onto ring.
Something to Reflect On
No matter what your light source is, reflectors are the best way to control exactly where light falls on your pieces. Our favorite reflectors are simply cut out of silver or gold metallic foil poster board. Dick Blick carries handy crescent boards that you can fold in half and set around your piece to "bounce" in the light. You can also use white poster board or white foam core, and cut out custom shapes to fit your scene. We are fond of this "V" shape (see photo at right) because it surrounds the ring but leaves space for your camera. Here you can see the dramatic difference a little reflector makes on this ring. We are simply bouncing the light that is on top and behind the ring back to the front. It's difficult to light your pieces from the front because any lighting equipment will block the camera. Bouncing the light just in the areas where it’s needed allows you to customize your light direction without compromising your line of sight. When you think of your reflectors as little customizable lights, your lighting options become limitless.
Third hands holding a piece of silver crescent board.
A Helping Hand
A very helpful tool for holding reflectors or foam core is a "third hand." We sell this third hand with weighted base here at Rio to help with soldering tasks. We love securing our reflectors with them and use them every day. The photo at right shows them holding a piece of reflective poster board at an angle to light up a bust. Experiment with other holders such as clothespins, clamps, binder clips or small easels.
Find Your Place in the Sun
The most budget-friendly option is using available light from windows or skylights. Setting up your tabletop studio next to a window on a sunny day allows you to harness natural light and modify it to fit your needs. You can find useful Dos and Don’ts of natural lighting by checking out this blog post by the Pixc Team. The great thing about natural light is that, besides being readily available, it preserves the color of your piece. (Fluorescent lights can change the hue of your shot and give you too much yellow, while LED lights will give you too much blue.) This benefit will also help speed up your postprocessing time. Styling your pieces on models or hanging jewelry from the branch of a shady tree on a bright day is a fast and easy way to get images for social media or client approval. Just remember that when shooting outside, you will not have as much control of the light as in your studio. Nonetheless, shooting outside in natural light is great for finished pieces.
Sometimes You’ve Got to Do It Yourself
Household lighting, such as adjustable lamps and clamp lights, is a great way to illuminate your tabletop without going over budget. These gooseneck lamps give a beautiful soft light; they also clamp onto your table and are endlessly adjustable.
Experiment with lamps in combination with your natural light to help light up any dark areas in your photograph. Garage lights like clamp lights or large work floodlights are affordable options for powerful lighting, but you will need to diffuse any “hard” (too-intense) light.
A standard tabletop set-up in Rio's Photo Studio
No Throwing Shade
If your window or artificial light is too harsh, it can cast deep shadows on your pieces. In that case, you’ll need to mellow out your light with a diffuser. Frosted Plexiglas is durable and sturdy, and when pieced together with packing tape, it can stand freely around the product you’re shooting. This works best with harsher lights. When diffusing window light, hang up white velum over the window—or for a more permanent solution, use sheer white curtains. If you need to diffuse a stronger light, like a work lamp, a cheap white shower curtain stretched over a frame works wonders. A large white T-shirt stretched over a 16” x 20” picture frame is another quick solution.
In the Rio's Photo Studio, we use one large softbox over each table. Specifically, we use a 36” x 48" Glow box by Flashpoint or an Impact box by Luxbanx Duo. The large softbox surrounds reflective jewelry with an even "sky-like" light and is comparable in size to the photo stand. It is imperative to have a sturdy stand for heavy lights and softboxes; we recommend a century stand or "C-stand" and sandbags for stability.
Continuous vs. Strobe Lighting
There are arguments surrounding continuous vs. strobe lighting. Don’t know the difference between the two? Continuous lighting is constant light at a higher wattage, giving you the light you need for great photography. Strobes have a modeling bulb that stays on continuously but then flashes with each shot you take. If you are shooting larger items like machines or models that need more overall light, a multi-light strobe system may give you the best results for consistent sharpness and quality. Strobes also stop movement. You might find you have issues with blurring when shooting dangling earrings or hanging chains. Using a strobe stops all movement and allows you to get sharp, clear shots every time. There are a huge variety of strobe systems; the AlienBees at paulcuff.com are affordable, popular ones.
Rio Studio's model, Kendall.
As for continuous lighting, what you see is what you get—which is great for controlling the light with reflectors. If you are using a big enough softbox, continuous lighting will give you beautiful and even lighting that doesn’t falter. You rarely have to adjust your lights position and can “stack” images, getting perfect sharpness at all points of your piece (as long as it’s completely still). You can find many versions of continuous lighting out there, but our favorites are the Norman Allure C1000 Tungsten lights. These offer two settings that do not change the color temperature—so important when shooting multiple products that need to stay consistent in color! These specific lights have a great warmth to them and mimic natural lighting very closely. You need to be careful when purchasing continuous lights, however, to avoid anything that does not have a built-in fan to cool your lights. Don’t buy anything with a florescent or LED bulb, either. The lights will easily overheat without a fan, leaving you waiting in-between shots or ultimately burning up your lights or even softboxes.
So to sum it all up, you don’t have to have big, expensive equipment to get great lighting. You can start out with easy, readily available resources—including natural light, foil reflectors and diffusers. And if you’re ready to make the leap and buy some gear, we hope you now have an idea of what to look for. Now it’s time to grab those jewelry pieces, clear off your table and get to shooting. Enjoy!
Profile: CBGEMS by Christina Beck
For Christina Beck, everything comes back to the stone. The 28-year-old third-generation silversmith creates bold pieces that are centered on gemstones and cabochons so delectable you want to reach into the photos on her website and Instagram page to touch them. She hopes to create unexpected jewelry that “speaks to the soul” using gemstones selected for their beauty but also for their natural properties. Her new line, CBGEMS, launched in June 2016. We sat down with Christina to talk about her work and her business model.
How and when did you start making jewelry?
I am a third-generation silversmith, but despite the lineage, I only touched on some lapidary/smithing basics with my grandfather back in 2005. Then in January of 2016, my father gave me a solder kit and encouraged me to return to my journey as a metalsmith. It takes a lot of dedication and research to learn new techniques and trades without formal instruction. Nonetheless, five months later, CBGEMS launched in June 2016.
How would you describe your work?
"Southwestern bohemian." I use high-grade American turquoise to create new modern twists on classic Southwestern styles. The definition of bohemian is informal and unconventional, especially as an artist. My work is just that—specifically and purposefully not based on or conforming to what is generally done or believed. It takes more effort to create a new path then it does to stroll down the beaten path, but the view is far more rewarding.
I also do a lot of work with crystals/specimens. I align the inspirations of the crystals’ healing properties with inspirations derived from nature to create jewelry with intention and purpose that someone can connect with. This is where my tagline (“Jewelry that speaks to the soul”) comes from.
How do you primarily sell your work?
My business is mostly online with consignment in one store. I sell my work first to my customers and Instagram followers via my website. I just attended my first small show and look forward to doing more in-person sales this year and next to expand a bit within my own community.
What’s your biggest challenge as a jewelry designer?
My biggest challenge is to constantly push the limits of what is expected in the jewelry industry. I am fascinated with unexplored and unique combinations of jewelry making and stone setting. Although my jewelry has key Southwestern and bohemian characteristics, it is important for me to continue to challenge myself as an artist and designer to make my pieces unique and extremely detailed.
It is also challenging diving into the jewelry industry as a “newbie.” I am open to any and all doors and experiences that may come up for me and my business, so it’s exciting and nerve-racking at the same time.
What’s your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur?
My biggest challenge here would be the act of wearing all of the hats. It’s hard to be a mom, artist, entrepreneur, business manager, accountant, shipper/packager, researcher, saleswoman, customer service rep., photographer and so much more all at once! There is a reason why my head is spinning all the time! It is hard to have a business plan and execute when you work in a creative field. Rather than plan, you have to create that future, and that is a CHALLENGE!
Tell us a little about your business model. Are you handcrafting all of your pieces? Do you work with a team of jewelers? How do your creations come to life?
I create each and every piece by hand. It is extremely labor intensive. I work as efficiently as possible to help things run smoothly and quickly by first developing an organized system and process while also working on many pieces at one time in various stages.
This process for me has become a sacred organization molded by trial and error and is a necessity to my business production. All custom orders and website orders are organized with customer information and design requests neatly written out on an index card. Throughout the entire production, each piece is kept with this index card for easy and quick reference. All of my pieces begin with the familiar: bezel first, then details, then what I call the "big solder," in which all components are soldered on the backplate, then ring shank or bail.
I am always tweaking my process and upgrading tools when I can to speed up production. I also have plans to cast a few pieces in the future to offer signature items at an affordable rate.
Is there a tool on your bench that you can’t live without?
There are many tools that I have become extremely fond of. If I had to pick one at this time, I’d say my favorite tool is my Knew Concepts bench pin. I bounce back and forth between this and my wooden bench pin for various uses. The Knew Concepts bench pin allows for secure, sturdy holding of the metal while making intricate cuts. I have also found it useful with my Foredom when drilling holes and piercing. It provides endless assistance to a detailed smith’s work and has really helped me step up my game!
Can you share a little bit about your creative process? When you’re designing a new piece or a new collection, where do you look for inspiration?
I read a lot of books that talk about expanding the mind and soul, spirituality, ancient wisdom, crystal healing, animal history and lore, poetry, and botanical/anatomy/celestial/magical titles that inspire the messages and meanings behind most of my work.
Inspiration hits me in so many ways while simultaneously coming together coincidently and aligning with my personal life adventures and struggles. The stones I am working with will absolutely inspire themes, textures, animals and poetry to go along with that line or piece. The animals in my work are all hand-drawn in my sketchbook to ensure originality and brought to life in metal with finely sawn detail. I call this “sketch-to-metal.” I also enjoy being in a creative flow as I work, allowing things to change and alter to best suit the pieces I am working on. When your creative flow is on, MAGIC happens!
Gemstones really are the soul of your work. What draws you to a particular stone?
Turquoise is truly an incredible stone, providing all of the best blues and greens across the board. The quality, rarity, source and color have always been big players in the stones I use. The more unique and high-grade, the more it will help my jewelry stand out. Aside from the pure beauty of the stones I use, it is important for me to always look for the unique qualities of even the most common stone.
Do you usually have the piece in mind before you go searching for a stone? Or do you fall in love with a particular stone and then design around it?
I design both ways all the time. I have stones sourced for illustrations that best represent the animal in that piece, and I also source stones in specific shapes and sizes. While creating these pieces, I always have stones on my desk that I work and play with while allowing the design to build and present itself as it’s created.
This issue of the RioPro newsletter offers jewelers advice on photographing their work. You have pretty stunning photography on your site. Do you take your own photographs? Or do you have a photographer do it for you?
It is always a nice confirmation to hear that people like my photography because I take all of my own photos … with my cellphone. I do have a nice Nikon that I would like to use more than I actually do. I am always looking for ways to do things better and more efficiently with my work and its presentation. The ease of snapping a picture or video with a cellphone has taken over because it is a faster process to edit on your phone and upload it to Instagram and your website. I still would prefer using a professional camera and plan to do so soon!
Do you have any advice to offer on capturing a great shot of your work?
I have read from a few successful photographers and bloggers to simply pick a theme or look that you can stick with, that people will identify and connect to your brand. Some people do this with a specific filter and keep it consistent so that it becomes recognizable. But filters are not so great with jewelry because you don’t want to give the wrong color impressions to potential customers. I buy fresh flowers every week to photograph with my jewelry; it’s a lot of work and an added expense, but I have heard from people that they know it’s me and my jewelry before they even look further to see my tag, or copyright or whatever. THIS is branding, and this is good. I think this signature look is especially important for an artist like myself who has a broad spectrum of styles, collections and pieces.
I would also advise shooting in natural light with indirect sunlight. It really makes a beautiful difference in the lighting of the photos.
Check out Christina's website, cbgemsla.com, and Instagram to see more.
Tech Tip: Hurt-Free Hammering with Jeff Herman
Ever notice aches or soreness in your body after you get up from the bench? Your hammering technique might be to blame. In this short video, silversmith Jeff Herman shares tips on proper ergonomics to help you hammer more easily, efficiently and comfortably.