Using underlighting on bottles etc

This is another of those standard professional techniques that people hear about but don’t always know how to do… but don’t worry, by the time you’ve used up your patience reading the 816 words in this post you’ll know exactly how to do it!

The subject can be anything that’s transparent or translucent. For this example, I chose a bottle of orange drink, and to make it slightly more complicated I added a real orange.

All these photos are straight from camera with no PP work. Just click on any photo to see a larger version. This project only took a few minutes to complete, it can be as simple or as complex as you like.

Now, in this first photo (left) I just used a flash head in a large 70 x 100 softbox, off the camera right.  Now, the ‘right’ tool for lighting bottles is a strip softbox (that’s what they were designed for) because we usually want to get a diffused specular highlight running evenly from top to bottom, and a strip softbox is perfect for that – but to get a diffused specular highlight the light source (softbox) needs to be very very close to the subject, and because I was stupid enough to stick an orange right next to the bottle I knew that placing the softbox really close would cause overexposure of the orange, thanks to the effect of the Inverse Square Law. So I used a larger softbox, a bit further away, to get a similar diffused specular highlight but without overexposing the orange too much. Make sure that the softbox is dead square to the subject, if either the top or the bottom is nearer to it you’ll get an uneven specular highlight and uneven exposure.


We now come to the underlighting bit. Before I explain how it’s done, let’s show you what it actually does… The photo on the left was shot with JUST the underlight, because I turned off the softbox light on the right.

Now, I shot this against a black background but the background colour can be anything you like, it makes no difference with this technique.

Basically we just cut a hole in the product base (the part of the background that the product is sitting on) and shine a light through it. The hole needs to be a bit smaller than the actual product, but other than that it isn’t critical. You’ll see that the underlight is also putting some light on the left of the orange, which was dark without it.

I used black velvet for the background, on a product shooting table, simply because it’s easier to position the light if there’s a shooting table, but if you don’t have one it doesn’t matter, as long as you can get a light underneath.

I used a studio flash head with a standard reflector fitted to it, but pretty much any light will do – you could use a hotshoe flashgun, a continuous light or even a desk lamp, it doesn’t matter.

We now have to balance the effect of these two lights. If you use a flash head for the main light and a continuous light for the underlighting then of course you set the lens aperture to suit the flash and use the shutter speed (in a darkened room) to control the amount of contribution from the underlight. Typically, if you want a subtle effect you’ll introduce just enough underlighting to ‘lift’ the shot a bit and make the contents glow. In the shot on the right, which includes both the main light and the underlight, I’ve overdone it a bit for the sake of effect.

Now, the light from the sofbox is of course also passing through the bottle, so the left hand side facing is also getting light. But the label and the cap isn’t able to transmit light so I felt that I needed some fill, and the shot on the right includes a fill.

There are loads of ways of adding fill, all that I used here was a simple white card on the left, just out of shot.  Using a fill card creates its own subtle specular highlight, and doesn’t (can’t) reflect as much light as the actual light, and usually works just as well as an extra light. Job done.

Anything else?
Well, on the shot on the left I sprayed the bottle with some water mist – just a plant sprayer. This works as long as you’re able to take the final shot very quickly after spraying the subject, but the water doesn’t hang around for very long, so if you’re not able to work quickly the normal trick of the trade is to add some glycerine to the water, which makes the water droplets hang around for much longer.

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