Reflecting on Shiny Objects
June 25th, 2016 by David LaBelle
Using two lights—one on the backdrop and one on the left to light the base and create a reflection—the wine glass is silhouetted, showing its shape. © David LaBelle

Using two lights—one on the backdrop and one on the left to light the base and create a reflection—the wine glass is silhouetted, showing its shape.
© David LaBelle

A man at the post office shared his frustration in trying to photograph some coins he was selling online.

“The reflection is ruining my pictures,” he groaned, adding, “I learned photography is all about lighting.”

Through trial and error, he found the key that unlocked all the deep secrets to photography. It is about the quality and direction of light.

Since nobody was behind me in line, I gave him a quick tutorial on light and how to best use it to photograph shiny objects, such as his coins. I explained how the direction and quality of light influence how we see and feel about people and objects.

Light changes our experience. When light comes from behind a subject, it shows shape. When it comes from the side, it reveals texture.

If the main or primary illumination—often a pop-up flash—is blasted at the front of your subject, it generally washes away shape and texture.

When the postal worker flooded his coins with light from above, it gave him enough light for a good exposure, but created hard-to-manage reflections, and eliminated the contour and design of the coins. He would have been better served to grab a household lamp and place it to one side or the other, which would create small shadows.

Like photographing shiny objects such as coins, making interesting pictures of glass can be challenging—especially managing reflections.

Reflections can be annoying, especially on eye glasses during portrait sessions. But they also can be helpful aids—accents that add visual excitement and energy to otherwise bland still-life pictures.

Just as photographing the wind is to photograph what it touches, photographing glass or shiny objects such as silverware often is to capture what is reflected on their surfaces.

  • If your camera has a built-in flash, disable it. Look for a setting in your camera’s menu. If not, block the flash with a piece of dark tape or cardboard. You might even fashion a little black hoodie to place over your pop-up flash. The camera will still fire, but the light will be blocked.
  • If showing the shape of the object (or person) is important, consider backlighting. If you know your way around a studio, you might want to add an accent light from above or the side.
  • If you light glassware from above, the light will reflect and follow the shape of the glass.
  • If your object is transparent, fill it part way with a liquid. Photographing glass or water is to photograph the color behind, beneath or reflected on it.
  • Make yourself a little studio in the corner of your garage or empty room and experiment with different colored backdrops. They don’t need to be large or lavish. A piece of dark cloth or paper—red, blue or black—can do wonders for your pictures.
  • Bracket your exposures. Take your camera off Auto, put it in the M (manual) mode, then vary settings for the desired results. Underexpose. Overexpose. Experiment.
  • Change angles and focal length of lenses.
  • Turn off all lights, except the ones used to illuminate your subject. Experiment by adding a second light source.
  • Look for online tutorials. Feeling confident with any concept or technique requires study and practice.
  • Remember that reflections can be friend or foe—annoying distractions or happy helpers.

daveL_mug_2011David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.