Product Photography: High-Key Lighting with Reflections

Hi Friends,

Now that my wife’s blog is up and running at (unabashed promotional hint), I find myself looking for a consistent way to shoot the product photos of her creative stamping and paper crafting projects.  Though I’ve used a variety of setups over time, I think I’ve finally settled on a look we like, and one that’s easy to reproduce.  Thought I’d share the setup and a few hints for high-key product photography.

High-key lighting is commonly used in product photography.  The bright white background directs your viewers right to the subject matter.  It’s typically bright, airy and clean looking, and relatively free of dark shadows. (Compare this to low-key lighting which is usually dark and moody).

The high key look is a function of the balance between the lighting of the subject (via the key light), and the background. Though you likely won’t actually measure the ratio with a light meter, high key lighting is usually in the ballpark of 1:1 ratio of the key light to the background light. (Compare to typical medium or low-key lighting where the background light can be significantly lower than the light on the subject).

It takes a lot of light to do high key lighting on a full size set because you need to throw an even wash of light over the entire background.  But for tabletop product photography, it’s pretty easy to achieve the look with just two lights.

I have two favorite setups for high-key tabletop lighting. One uses a frosted translucent acrylic base, and one a more reflective, but completely opaque, acrylic.

The translucent acrylic setup uses a 1/4 x 24 x 24-inch piece of frosted acrylic as the base (see below). This can be suspended over a pair of saw horses, or as in the image below, a professional shooting table. The key is to be able to light it from below.  Note: I use hotshoe flash units (Nikon Speedlights) for this, but you could do it with continuous lights as well.

The trick here is to bounce the light from below the table rather than illuminate it directly.  A piece of white foamcore from your local craft store works great. As you can see in the above image, the foamcore is positioned below the table at about 45-degrees.  The background / underlight is placed far enough behind the set that it illuminates the entire foamcore board, and even lights the translucent background sweep as well.

The key light is above and in front of the set. A diffuse light source works best.  I use a Nikon Speedlight in a 3-foot octagonal softbox or a shoot-thru umbrella for the key light, but whatever you use, remember to try to get the light as close as you can to your subject for the softest shadows.

With the frosted translucent acrylic alone, I get nice underlighting, but no reflection:

To provide a subtle, natural reflection, I add a thin (1/8-inch) piece of clear acrylic (readily available at your local home improvement store) over the translucent frosted acrylic.  You can see the edges of the clear acrylic extending over the sides of the table here:

Shooting at a low camera angle makes the reflection more apparent:

My other favorite reflective high-key setup uses a piece of opaque white acrylic:

Since this type of acrylic is opaque, you can’t light it from below.  A brightly lit white background provides nearly the same look.  In this case I hang a piece of white ripstop nylon (a couple bucks from my local fabric store) or a white flat bed sheet 6-8 feet behind the tabletop set.  (You can tell your friends it’s a professional seamless white photographic background if you want).  The key light is the same as the previous setup, but in this case I position the background light at about tabletop height behind the bedsheet background.

I’ve found that lighting the background from behind gives me a more intense, even light with a single light than I could achieve by lighting it from the front.  Hence, almost all of my high-key tabletop setups are backlit.

Aside from the bright, fresh look provided by the high-key lighting scheme, the other advantage of this setup is an uncluttered background.  Whether you use a similar setup for your product photography or not, your images will almost always have more impact if you shoot against a clean background.  So clear a space on your dining room table, and be selective in framing your image to avoid background distractions.

Hope this gives you a few ideas for your own product photography.  Feel free to email me or comment below if I can help you with specific questions.

Thanks for dropping by!


Share and Enjoy!

30 thoughts on “Product Photography: High-Key Lighting with Reflections

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *