Shooting macro on a white background: simple yet very useful tricks

Quite often we shoot macro, and even more often we shoot it on a white background. In most cases this means that at the end client will receive images of the subject on a pure, (0xFFFFFF) background.
Such requirement leaves photographer with only one way (to make it easier on the post-production): shoot on as bright as possible background. But bright back light is an enemy for a product photographer, especially if the subject is too close to it, as it may get overexposed.

So, the simplest and most obvious solution is to have the subject completely separated from a background. Easy, right?

Let me show you about how we handled one of our recent shots for Endochoice, a fast growing supplier of medical products and our very good long-term customer. This time we did a small endoscope cleaning brushes, like this one:

medical brush on white background product photography

medical brush on white background product photography

The image about is a non-processed camera RAW converted product. The only thing I did is dialed clarity to +30. This is in, no more adjustments were made. As you see, the background is almost pure white (few more adjustments and it will be 100% white), while the brush hair, semi-transparent by its nature is completely visible.

That was done by positioning this small (about 15mm long)  brush about a feet away from a background, (that was a large 79”x49” Manfrotto shooting table). It has very smooth matte white Plexiglas surface, but any other matte (it should be completely glare-free background) will work as well: white paper is a good example.

The lighting setup looked like this:

tabletop macro photography lighting setup white background

Tabletop macro photography lighting setup on white background

It is very important to have background light (#3 through a BD) to highlight only background, there should be no spills on our subject. I’ve used a Manfrotto articulated arm with Super Clamp (BTW, very inexpensive and VERY useful thing in the studio) connected to a heavy-duty flex arm, the end of it is from some (probably) background holder keeping the brush wire on a place.

For the subject I had 2 light sources: strong sharp light from the left (#1 through 10º honeycomb grid) and stripbox (#2) on top. I never measure the ratio between lights when shoot small stuff like this, so you have to play yourself to find the right one. can only say that background should be at least 2 stops  brighter (it is also depends from the surface material), so it will be completely overexposed.  Do not overexpose it too much though, as it will be killing the edges of the subject, especially if this is something like a brush hair.
BTW, I have an image of the same brush without light #2, check it out:

medical tabletop darker brush on white background photography

medical brush on white (darker) background photography

As you see, brush is too dark, and even a left bottom corner of the background did not get enough light, due to the way I highlight it. But its cool to see how we can get almost dark subject on a very bright background. This image has no adjustments as well, only +30 clarity in the RAW converter.

Now, let me show you the wrong way to do such shoot. At the end of the shoot I spent 5 minutes to shoot it for the article: I’ve placed one of the brushes on the table and was trying to shoot it this way.
It has the similar setup, but all the light sources were pointing at one spot where brush was placed.

This  one has the same background brightness as was on the very first image:

medical brush bad example on brighter white background

medical brush bad example on brighter white background

100% crop from the image above:

100% crop bad on white macro photography example

100% crop bad macro photography example

The brush hair is not visible, which makes the image completely useless.

On this one I’ve tried to dial down the lights, at least enough to get subject exposed correctly:

medical brush bad example on darker white background

bad example of tabletop photography

100% crop from above:

100% crop bad on darker example

100% crop bad on darker background

It looks a little better, and this image can be used in production after hard work on Photoshop: the brush hair reflects more light than the background under it, and retoucher would have to fix it manually… too bad.

Here is how that first image 100% crop looks like:

100% crop medical brush product photography example

100% crop medical brush product photography example

See? This is how you shoot when you are in love with your retoucher:-)

One more example of the same green brush done right way, this time the final version:

brush on white background

brush on white background

So, this is what we do if have relatively bright subject and/or need to get almost post-production free shots on a white background: we fix or hang subject in the air instead of placing it on the table! Simple:-)

Update: if you are not sure how to easy check if the background is 100% white, there is a quick post on our retoucher’s blog: Is the white background really white?

Update: There is a setup for larger object whihc can’t be easily hanged. So, we can place item on a glass and have white background behind the glass, lit separatelly from the object:

lighting schema for product photography on white background

lighting schema for product photography on white background

Hope it was interesting. If you like my articles, get up and subscribe to the blog updates through our RSS feed.

Shoot Specification:
Camera gear:

Lighting, light modifiers and accessories:

Exposure specification: shutter speed 1/250 sec, F18, ISO 100



About The Author: Alex Koloskov

The lighting magician, owner of AKELstudio, Inc.

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34 comments to Shooting macro on a white background: simple yet very useful tricks

  • Hooman

    Hi Alex,

    When i click on the link “Is the white background really white?”, i’m facing with this:
    502 Server dropped connection

    have any idea?

  • Dave Fryer

    This is an awesome tutorial.

    Can you tell me how long it took you to get the background completely white in post processing?

    This is very helpful.


  • Kyran

    Hi Alex,

    This is a great write-up showing how to photograph a truly difficult subject. I work fulltime as a photographer for a company and have to shoot lots and lots of small items on white backgrounds like this. I also have had to shoot brushes absolutely identical to this and wish I had known about placing them on glass about the background before I shot them. Great work, I enjoy coming here to learn more about shooting products!

  • Pan

    Thank you very much

    This article and other articles to much help me
    My product photos will be better on feature

    Have a good job

  • I just started trying to photograph products for an online company. This little tip will come in very handy. What about a soft blue as the background color?

  • Absolutely rediculous photos. And to comment on the above by Tom….take killer pictures..learn a little bit about seo….make youtube videos about them…start a blog with them…man I could keep going…get ur work out there..if its good people will find you like Alex said.

  • Hi Alex, Afetr finding your articles I was amazed at your ability to use simple item to get amazing results for your product shots. Thanks so much for sharing, I have been trying several ways to shoot but am very new to shooting products. any tips to find work in this line of photography? Again, Thanks for your helpful articles!

  • Really enjoying reading your articles – I’ve never managed to get happy with subjects on white and this has given me some great ideas. I love the clarity of your presentation and all the examples and it’s nice to see someone who replies to blog comments. Keep up the great work and I’ll be back regularly (now off to set all my lights up and try some of your setups) :)


  • ken

    Great tips on shooting a hard-to-capture object. Thanks for sharing!

  • Frank

    Thanks Alex, I really appreciate what your doing here. All the info is really helpful.

  • Frank

    Nice! However I need to do cables ( powercords, USB cables) on pure white so they can’t be easily suspended. I was wondering if laying them on a piece of glass would work or if you have a better solution for parts that don’t hold their shape.


    • Frank,
      Yes, transparent glass and white background behind will work the best for cables and other shapeless stuff. The lighting will look similar to this: Lighting setup for white background
      The difference would be how you’ll highlight the background: make it pure white instead of a gradient. The glass should be transparent instead of matte.

      Good luck with the shoot!

  • very nice work. and very helpful for future jobs. thanks so much.

  • I enjoy reading your blog…love all of your equipment too!

  • This is a very simple shot The white background can be hanging 2 to 4 feet in back of the subject and lite separately from the subject ( which is suspended )

    The subject can be brighten with a refector or low level lighting
    this will give you good detail and separation.

  • Alex;
    Interesting, I keep looking at the shot and wonder a couple of things.

    1. First you shot two different brushes, but no matter.;-) You said you shot without light #2. Did you do the same without light #1? Its hard to tell what the handle would look like as you show two different brushes. And, wouldn’t it give better modeling of the hairs and handle with only #2 on and slightly back to give contuour to the handle and slight backlighting of the hairs? I assume the “Yellow” handle would be brighter with only #2 on and #1 off?

    2. Is the white background mandatory? It seems it prevents the brush from standing out. Wouldn’t you get a better seperation of the brush hair and a more dramatic shot with a gray or black background?
    Is it possible to offer the client both? I’m sure it would only take about 1 minute to unroll a different color BG under the product and then adjust the lighting on the BG or eliminate it entirely. Or, more simply, for that matter just turn down the power on the BG so its 1-2 stops Less than the subject and you wouldn’t have to change the Paper.

    Let’s see, how would that work?
    1. shoot only the brush being lit with BG off.
    2. view the histogram on the computer and adjust the light power and reshoot to get the “White” bristles close to the right side without blowing out anything.
    3. Turn off the Key light and Turn on the BG light and adjust the power so the histogram shows it at midtone range (gray -somewhere about R116/G116/B116).
    4. Turn on both lights and test to varify the light combo doesn’t blow any highlights and make the hero shot.

    I’ll have to hunt around for a tooth brush or something similar and try your shot and different senerios to see what they look like.


    • Richard,
      1. No, I did not shot without #1. The light #1 do not have much impact of the whole brush as the light #2,as it adds a little bit of a highlights on the brush hair. The show could be done without #1, for sure. Yes, it could be positioned as a hair light, from behind of the brush. Will work well too.

      2.Yes, it is. In most cases white is a requirements form the client and a “standard” for brochure and web, as items will be placed on a border-free layout on a white paper/webpage. So, we can shoot like I did, or shoot on a gray BG and then clip it out in photoshop. With that brush hair it would be a lot of work;-)

      Either way will work. I am always trying to find the optimal way: best possible results in a shortest period of time:-)
      Good luck with your play:-)

      P.S Hey, I’ve noticed that your domain, ImageZonePhotography is parked.. Do you have your website in development, or just keeping a good domain for a future ideas? Just curious:-)

  • Nice, lighting the background seperate from the subject, with the subject suspended and about 1-2 stops less exposure. Thank you.

  • Steve

    Very nice explanation, I really enjoy your blog.

    I would’ve tried one thing differently, and maybe it would’ve made the ratios easier for the subject matter. Elevate the beauty dish in your top photo by 12″ or so. That would make the stripbox in the foreground a gobo for the light from the beauty dish. Once you gobo the beauty dish, the key light and stripbox are the only factors in how light or dark the subject would’ve been.

    That shooting table looks great, I’d love to own one.

    • Steve,
      Yes, this will work too. The only problem could be that raised BD won’t have enough power: the way I had it it was about 2/3 of its max power, and if raised up high, its total 640 WS may not be enough to get the same brightness of the background.
      But I like you idea! Thanks for sharing here:-)


  • Thank you once again for your generosity in sharing your knowledge Alex.
    I had an assignment recently to shoot 300 products for a Hairdresser who sold on line. I used a similar method in the post production, but not the lighting.

    Like you I also used fishing line and removed in PS later.
    Thanks again


  • There is a type of polyester thread called “Invisiblity Thread”. For shooting on a white background this thread is almost invisible. It can be found at most fabric stores.

  • Greg

    How did you get that last shot? What’s holding it up, or was it two shots edited together?

  • This is how you shoot when you in love with your retoucher:-)
    Nice one but, come on, be honest, You fear the retoucher’s retaliation in the private sphere :D

    Joke aside, I always enjoy rading your articles. Very informative.

    Greetings from Quebec City


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