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Creating a Variety of Photo Backgrounds from One Set-up

Last Updated: 26th Sep 2011

By Ron Gibbs

Creating a Variety of Photo Backgrounds from One Set-up
by ron gibbs 2011

I will illustrate the set-up I use to do my desktop photography. I do not claim the set-up as my invention, rather it was taken from the book written by Jeff Scovil, my design was created as a variation of that found on page 93 of his book. (“Photographing Minerals, Fossils, & Lapidary Materials”, Jeffrey Scovil, now out of print) I have created two or three slightly different table-top variations with some dimensional differences. The one illustrated represents a smaller desktop model that is 12 inches wide, 14 inches high and 16 inches deep.

The height was determined by placing the unit on my normal working surface and raising it up far enough so I could avoid a good deal of bending during the focusing and setting up of the specimens. The surface dimensions handle most of the objects I tend to photograph which include slabs, cabochons, and jewelry.

The joints are made by simply overlapping the wood and using two wood screws to hold each joint together. The wood risers run about a 1/4 of an inch above the top horizontal supports and act as fences to keep the glass from sliding off. I added the metal strip on the rear support so I could use magnets to secure background materials below the glass. I personally tend to use the background below the glass less. I use one mounted behind and above the glass (see below) far more often, but this particular design makes it easy for me to implement either.

The first photo set shows close up images of the creation of the “table-top stage”. The first image shows the assembly method (2 screws) and there is a close-up of the slight offset needed to keep the glass in place. The glass (or acrylic) sits directly on this upper frame. The entire unit was then painted flat black to eliminate any unwanted reflections and the metal strip was screwed into the top-rear frame.

My first article showed a number of “textured” backgrounds that can be used to photograph minerals, and was created in answer to a question in the Mindat photography forum. This led to a few more questions regarding my lighting and tabletop set-up. So here is the general type of set-up I use. The wooden frame is used in two ways, the first is with the background below the glass table top.

Background Below the Tabletop

The object to be photographed is placed on the clear glass (or acrylic) and the background is placed below the glass, and it can be lighted from below or just positioned there without additional lighting. The next diagram shows the framework with the glass on top. The final illustration is after it was painted black and with a background hanging below the glass. The background can be used at about a 45 degree angle, or can be used in the form of a gentle curve (as illustrated). I use the metal strip on the rear top with a couple of magnets to hold the top end of the background just below the line of the glass. The background is then stretched forward and allowed to naturally curve to the base.

The sample to be photographed is placed in the front 1/3 of the glass and and the camera is positioned to shot through the glass using the stretched material below the sample’s surface to form the background. I often use colored craft-foam from Michael’s Craft supply as my solid background. Similarly construction paper or scrapbook papers works fine.

The next photo illustrates a pair of images using the red background, the first with no additional lighting below the table, and the second with an added spotlight below the table. The position of the lower spotlight can be used to provide a variety of background effects. In this particular case it was used to evenly illuminate the background and provide a lighter overall tone.

Next are a pair of images made with a black paper below the glass, and again one is without the lower spotlight (right) and the second shows it in use. Here it was placed closer to the background, and positioned more to the center of the viewfinder.

Next are a set of photos showing the result using the frosted-acrylic instead of the clear glass. The frosted surface provides a more muted tone to the background color and a softer gradient when used with the lower spot light. The spot lighted images are to the right in each pair.

There are a couple of things remember when using this set up. Any time there are highly reflective crystal faces pointed downward in the sample, they will reflect the color of the background. When the lower spotlight is used it will enhance the effect and this may not be desirable. Letting a part of the lower spotlight shine upward and through the clear top can sometimes be used to decrease the unwanted color reflection. The easiest way to avoid this is to use white, black or a shade of gray and avoid the problem altogether. It is also possible to position the background material completely behind (to the rear) of the sample and this will often alleviate problem.

The amount of reflection in the clear tabletop can be controlled to a certain extend by adjusting the angle at which the camera is pointed down. Raising the camera on the tripod and shooting more downward produces a deeper, and shorter reflection. Shooting at less of an incline will produce a longer reflection that will likely be clipped by the framing of the image. Lighting the sample more to the front will produce more of a reflection, and lighting placed more the side or rear will generally lessen the reflection.

Background Above the Table Top

I tend to use the wooden set-up far more with either black acrylic or a piece of glass with one side painted black as the table’s surface. This is my favorite set-up for most mineral, jewelry, cabochon and even gemstone photography. The basic set-up is illustrated in the next diagram. In the first frame (left) is the simple black glass (or acrylic) in the wooden frame. I then use a piece of foamcore board behind the surface at a right angle. (center illustration)

In the middle image there is a white background, and notice that it is reflected in the black surface producing a gray tone. In the final of the three images is a red background, again reflected into the black surface. The black glass is used with the non-painted side up, and like the acrylic, it becomes a nearly perfect black mirror. Anything suspended behind it will be reflected into the surface and the color will be intensified several levels of magnitude.

The first image in the next pair of photos shows a typical result with a white background illuminated with only spill light from the side lighting (discussed later.) The second image is the same white card background, but with the addition of its own separate spotlight to modify the final photo.

The white board can be lighted to make it a paler shade of gray or it can be maintained just out of the light path to make it darker gray. If you desire a truly black background then it is necessary to use black craft-foam or paper in the upper background position. White, black and a red backgrounds are illustrated in the next diagram.

In a manner similar to that used with the clear glass, the camera is positioned so that it uses only the reflected surface in the final background. The diagram shows the use of an additional spotlight to modify the final appearance. The spot light is directed on to the background, with the angle, and position of the light used to create a variety of effects.

From the camera’s point of view (illustrated next) the reflected spotlight can produce a halo with graduated lighting, or can be used to produce a short gradient. The first example shows a black background, and it can also be modified with the reflected spotlight. Two side-by-side photographs are shown below, the left without the spot and the right one with it.

Next, the same general set-up with a red background showing a series of images and the results first without a spot, and then two different versions created by changing the spotlight position. Note the added intensity of the red color in the black reflection. This makes it very easy to create more dramatic gradient effects with the added spotlight.

As when using the clear table-top attention must be given to the reflections in the sample’s crystal faces, but in the case of the reflected backgrounds, they usually appear in the crystals pointed upward and slightly to the back. Careful positioning of a sample can often reduce them, but in multi-crystalline samples they can be difficult to entirely remove.

When shooting black or very dark minerals it is useful to use the white background in the reflective black table-top to achieve better edge detail around the sample. If you look at most published mineral images, backgrounds are often neutral (light gray to black) or they use a contrasting color for the mineral. Often purple minerals are photographed with yellow as a background, red minerals with a variation of green, and yellow to orange minerals with a blue shade. The majority of published images today tend to use graduated (graduated = changing tonality) in the photos.

The changing tonality backgrounds can be created by using graduated tone paper (often hard to find or expensive), or by using any of the above illustrated lighting techniques against an appropriate background color.

Subject Lighting

As a general rule of thumb, the harder and more reflective a surface is, the more it needs to be illuminated with soft light. (soft light = diffuse light.) In the mineral world nearly all samples are both hard and many are highly reflective. Hence they should be lighted with diffuse lights or they will produce strong specular highlights.

I use CFL (compact fluorescent lightbulbs) for nearly all of my work. I purchase them with a fixed specific color temperature. When using my low cost reflectors I use almost exclusively 5000K bulbs. I prefer a slightly warmer light. My more expensive softbox lights came with 6500K bulbs already installed, so I use them when I use the large softbox lights. I do not mix my subject lighting, I never use a combination of 5000K and 6500K in the same set-up. (Except where I may add an additional light to the background as this light is not part of the subject lighting.)

While CFL bulbs do not provide the same spectral qualities as true sunlight, they tend to work fine when they are properly color balanced. There are more expensive CFL bulbs that are suppose to give better spectral response, and I have tried them. They can produce marginally different colors in a few minerals, (mainly color change gemstones) but I have found them an unnecessary expense for the main body of my work.

Why not mix the 5000K, 5500K and 6500K bulbs? Since the lighting is virtually always directional, if you light one side of a sample with one color light, and then illuminate the opposite side with a different color light it will be nearly impossible to obtain neutral lighting in the final image. The correction needed for one side of the sample will always be wrong on the other side. 5000K lights will appear slightly warm (yellowish) when compared to 6500K lights, and the 6500K will appear markedly blue when compared to the 5000K lights. The human eye will often not detect these color shifts, but they will be come readily apparent in the camera.

The next photo shows both of my light types. The shorter one which is turned on is a 5000K CFL (26 watt), and I am using “white” corrugated plastic as a diffuser. The corrugated plastic was obtained from a local sign company, it is the same material used to create lawn signs for political or real estate purposes. The large light (turned off) in the background is a 2 foot square softbox and uses 5 6500K CFL (45 watt each) bulbs that can be individually controlled.

The next two photos show my typical lighting set-ups for table-top to thumbnail sized specimens. I might use two lights as in the first image in the pair, or I sometimes use only one light and a side reflector. In the second image the light is from the left and the reflector is on the right. Either of these two set-ups may be used with a spot light below. (illustrated in the right hand image.)

Next are the resultant images from the above two set-ups. The first pair shows an image with only the spill light from the two side lights illuminating the background. The second in the pair shows the same result with a third light (spotlight) used from below.

The final pair of images were created by using only one light from the left and a reflector on the right. (The reflector was also a piece of the white corrugated plastic.) The first image in the pari shows the result without the reflector, and the second shows how much more light is added to the dark-side with only a single reflector. I have also used a large reflector with a whole cut in the center through which I aim the lens in a few cases.

Although you are probably tired of seeing this piece of schorl tourmaline by now it was intentional. I am trying to emphasize the backgrounds and how a simple lighting set-up can be used to change it. Actually I have been told that black minerals on black backgrounds are very difficult, but in most cases I find them pretty simple if I use the white board reflected in the black to control the background tone or a spotlight reflected off of a black board from behind. White minerals on a white background I find far more challenging.

Shooting gemstones is what I consider to be the ultimate test and never an easy task! You and I might not achieve a true Jeff Scovil image with these techniques, but I think they can improve your image quality and provide for a good stating point for experimentation.

Article has been viewed at least 18416 times.


THANKS - this is now my next construction project!

Robert Simonoff
27th Sep 2011 1:11am
Very nice article.
I know that something like this is a lot of work.
Thanks a lot.

Amir C. Akhavan
27th Sep 2011 9:22pm
Very informative. I will certainly be trying these techniques for my mineral photos.

Lawrence Violett
13th Nov 2011 10:45pm

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