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Product Photography: shooting hi-end pens with lighting setup and how-to do tricks

Recently we’ve finished shooting  a line of hand made pens for PenzByDesign.com and I would like to share the lighting setup and few tips on how we did this project.

So, the pen:  Relatively simple object to photograph, right?  I’ve used narrow softbox on top to make that line-like reflection on a pen. However, one light source placed on top did not highlight a shines of a pen’s acrylic or wood trim.  This is why I’ve added two spot lights on each side of the pen.

Example of small reflective object photography in a studio
Example of small reflective object photography in a studio

Lighting schema:

photography lighting schema for a small objects
photography lighting schema for a small objects

Update: For all shoots I’ve used Canon EF 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens, aperture was around F14, shutter speed 1/250, max X-Sync for my canon.

As you can see on the image, these spot lights from a both sides highlighted  acrylic very well:

I’ve used a piece of glass painted to match customer’s web site colors, plus, it will be easier to apply a digital background for some of the photos.  Below are few more examples, on a painted glass background,  just to show how it worked with a different pen’s colors:

Example of small reflective object photography in a studio
Example of small reflective object photography in a studio
Example of jewelry-like reflective object photography in a studio
Example of jewelry-like reflective object photography in a studio

You can clearly see the long reflection line from a top soft box. The spot lighting from sides is not visible, as they  hit pen with a very sharp angle, only highlight a acrylic plastic.

Example of   reflective object photography in a studio
Example of reflective object photography in a studio

Here is a few more images from the same photo session, a little more sophisticated setup:

Photography of a pen in a studio on a digital background
Photography of a pen in a studio on a digital background

The cap and pen were shot separately,  on a solid white  background, then a gradient digital background and reflection were added to a photo. Client’s  requirement was to have a few gradient backgrounds for a selection for these photos, so digital one was the easiest to get, despite all the steps required.  I did not use spot light sources here, but a few little softboxes on both sides, plus one on top.
Here is the actual “raw” source  images used  for the image above.  I’d use white background, as it made pen look more shiny:

Raw studio shoot prior to a post processing
Raw studio shoot prior to a post processing

Also, I’ve shoot a separate image for a reflection, as pen looks different from below, so you can’t just copy the original image to make a reflection:

Reflection source image
Reflection source image

One more, angle shoot , same setup as above, on a digital background:

Digital background studio photography example image
Digital background studio photography example image

Spot strobes were used here, you can see the highlights on a pen’s trim from them.

As always, I would appreciate reader’s input. Please do not hesitate to ask questions or give me a comment. Thank you and enjoy!

29 responses on "Product Photography: shooting hi-end pens with lighting setup and how-to do tricks"

  1. What is the best method for a high-end pen that is ultra-shiny silver with lasered text and a logo on the center of the barrel?

  2. Gotcha. I did not know if you were talking about something else. can you use other lighting besides the strobes?

  3. Okay what do you mean by digital background? can you get this effect without strobes?

  4. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for sharing your work. I am a beginner in product photography. This will help me a lot.


  5. hi alex dis is deepak frm india i saw your work n its very nice n thank u very much for sharing camera setting.
    i have just started my photography career dis types of tips really i need.well i have 1 dslr camera n 1 laptop
    2 studio light n 3 lenses tripod is it ok to start photography???/
    tell me if u have time??
    regards:deepak m raninga frm india.

    • Deepak,
      Yes, you can start with what you have.. However, specific tasks may require specific tools.
      In general, 2 lights is a minimum for a studio, 3 + several reflectors will be enough for most of situations.
      Thank you and good luck for you and your photography!

  6. Hello Alex,
    I’m reading all your blog with such a good informations.
    I have one question for you. I would like to star some still-life photography in my home studio. I have 4 500w Hensel heads, Several Light boxes, stands, etc. I would like to know your opinion if a still-life table is a nonsense buy? I like white backgrounds with very soft shadows!!!!
    Thanks in advance,

    • Cristiano,
      Sorry, your question is not 100% clear for me, I understand it like this: “Do I really need to have a shooting table for my still life work?”
      Am I right? If so, here it the answer:
      You will need some sort of a shooting table in any case. the main idea is to have samples transition from horizontal to a vertical surface, right?

      A good shooting table cost from $400 to $800, but you can easily create your own: get an acrylic sheet (resellers like HomeDepot does have them), paint one side with airspray paint into a color you want, and you’ll have a very nice bendable surface.
      Now lay one end on the regular table and fix other end vertically with your light stand and a big clamp: your shooting table is ready.

      Hope this answered your question, wish you good luck!

  7. Alex,

    Thank you so very much for this quick and detailed informations. Actually I got a big influense after seen your youtube video about cosmetic brush photography. Brilliant. I’m just an everyday amateur at the moment, who planning to change skill to product photography, especially jewellery photography in the near future. (I know it’s a big challenge) In first row I’d like to try out how difficult and try to collect studio flash as cheap as possible -only for starting-. It wasn’t so clear for me what power level necessary, thanks for my missing knowledge. I haven’t found yet any advanced level book about this area and for this reason I looked around on youtube and found your videos, that much more useful like anybody’s else. So I’m ready to learn -no matter as I’m a few years older than you :) – and then sharing my knowledge and experience like you do.
    What do you think about next, definitely starter setup for practicing as I’m on tight budget now: I got an EOS 20D with 3 not relevant lenses (10-20, 18-55 and 70-300) they aren’t L classe :( , I’d like to find a 100’s macro lens, 2x400Ws studio flash.

    Kind regards,

    • @Bela Cseke,
      To start working with lights and learn a studio photography, 200ws will be more then enough:-) When i was learning my way, I was using these
      screw-in strobes with 50-100ws of power. They worked great.. till I know I need a bigger lights.

      Lenses are not quite important at the beginning, as you need to learn the light and run out of the quality range of existing lenses first.
      You can add Sigma 105mm f2.8 Macro (This is what i was using before I’ve got my canon 100mm f2.8L macro) or Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di 1:1 Macro lenses, both of them are great for studio photography.

  8. Hi Alex,

    I has been read thru your website and watch videos. I’d like to ask about studio flash. Once I read 200Ws flashes enough. I just wondered, when I read in this pen light setup’s used 800Ws on sides and 1600Ws on top, and used on full power. Why you neded so high power?
    I don’t have yet macro lens, so here is my next question about aperture. You used F14, why? And another question about shutter speed, you used 1/250th for a static composition. Why do used for your camera’s max sync speed? I know shutter speed, aperture and sensivity give all together the high flash energy, actually I interested in basic conception. If I do a same kind of setup, I suppose I’ll choice F8 or F10, shutter sppeed 1/80-1/100 and 400Ws studio flashes. What’s wrong with them, or what you experienced to did you the listed setup.

    Thanks a lot in advance,

    • Bela,
      There are several concepts you need to understand before we can move forward.

      First, the shutter speed: shutter does not play ANY role when you shoot in studio with strobes, meaning no other significant light is present. Why? Because most studio monolights has flash duration between 1/200 and 1/1000 of a second, so it is does not matter if I shoot with 1/50 or 1/250 shutter speed: subject will be highlighted by flash only.
      However, I always choose camera highest x-sync speed to avoid interference with other lights in a studio: i do not keep studio dark, have other then modeling lights.

      Second, when I shoot products, DOF (depth of field) is usually must be as deep as possible to get the whole object in a focus So, this is why I’ve used F14 for that particular shot, often I use F22.

      Thirds, flash power: Nobody can’t say that 200ws will be enough or not enough for a studio, as required flash power (for a particular shot) is calculated based on:
      1. Aperture: Stopping the apertue down one stop (like from f/4 to f/5.6) requires double flash power. Two stops is 4x power, and three stops is 8x power.
      2. Distance: Increasing flash-to-subject distance by 1.414 (square root of 2) times more distance requires double flash power (one stop). Two times the distance is 4x power, or two stops (inverse square law.
      3. Light modifier attached to a flash: softbox can add 1-2 f-stops to an exposure, narrow honeycomb grid (for pen’s I’ve used 10 degree) can “eat” up to 4 f-stop of lash power. To overcome this, you may need 3200ws at full power…
      4. ISO speed: Increasing ISO to double value (like ISO 200 to ISO 400) requires only half of the flash power (one stop). Doing that ISO double twice (ISO 200 to ISO 800) requires only 1/4 the power (2 stops)

      There is a very good tutorial about flash photography here: scantips.com, read and learn:-)

      Good luck!

  9. Hi Alex. Very cool site.

    What kind of glass do you use (acrylic or real glass)? I’m buying some plastic sheets at lowes that seem to work good.

    How do you paint them? I assume you just spray one side but wondered if you couldn’t just lay down colored paper. Going to go try now. Great site. Plan to read every word of it in the weeks ahead.

    • Brett,
      I use both glass and acrylic, but for this shot it was glass, painted (air-spray from one side) to match client’s desired color.
      I prefer to use glass whenever it is possible due to its scratch-resistance. But many times I need to have cyc-like background, so only acrylic will work.
      Paper did not work for me, as it showed paper texture through the glass.

      Thank you and good luck with your photography business!

  10. I like all the style you have effected to make the pens shines look good.
    Thanks for sharing all the wonderful thoughts with us.
    I will keep looking forward for your more post.

  11. What a great find! I’ve got a pen I need to shoot. Thanks!

  12. Dear koloskove,
    thank u for the detailed in formations provided in this blog. It is very appreciable because now a time no photographers will share their ideas with other. God bless you and my prayer is always with you for better & better work experiences.

  13. Thanks for sharing! I like the look of the painted glass. Also agree with the lighting comments made.

    keep up the great work!

  14. Daniel,
    Thank you, very good points.
    I was trying not to have that line on a pen from a top box, but without it pen was looking flat. You are right, it may be better to have a tiny or gradient-looking lines instead. There are always ways to improve the shoot:-) But since I’ve made photos from a first pens (more than a year ago, middle of 2008), customer liked them and I would have to stick with the same setup for the rest the line. .


  15. Many years ago when we shot some things for Pentel, They were very specific about not having the white line across the top of the pen. By moving the top light back a little so the color of the top of the pen is not washed out might be better. I know lots of still photographers use strobe lights but i have found when working with small product lighting high intensity LED (now that they are available) or movie lights work better and using flags or cookies to break up that line would also work. The third image from the bottom shows what i mean. The pen barrel has less of that bright white line down the middle that washes out the color. However, the third and forth shots from the bottom are very nice and show the detail in the product and its workmanship. Just a thought, I could be wrong.

  16. Nicely done… i like the simplicity of the set up. A lot of times, less is definately more…

  17. Beautiful shots with great detail. The side lighting was a great idea. Thanks for posting all the detailed information.

  18. Can you describe what brand of lights or where to find small light boxes and spot beams.

    • Brain,
      You are right, from now on I’ll be including such information.
      I am using Paul C. Buff strobes, I have both White lightning and Alien Bees. So, on this setup two 800Ws on a sides (spot), 1600Ws on top. Both side flashes were used almost at full power, as 10 degree snoot eats a lot of light. The top one was set to about 1/16 of full power. The both spot lights was 10 degree Paul C Buff howneycombs

      You can see the units with honeycomb attached and softbox from my other photo-session, video

  19. Very nice shots! Good info, thanks!

  20. You did not say what lens you used. I would be interested.

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