Photograph Jewelry and Small Products with Smooth Highlights
A smooth highlight is one that helps to emphasize the form of a subject by bending, flowing, and warping in the same manner as the subject. A smooth highlight on a wedding band is one that wraps around the band, providing a sense of its roundness.
Using a soft box for lighting jewelry
Soft box lighting accessories are designed for use with reflective subjects. They provide a large surface area of light that’s ideal for getting smooth highlights on subjects of varying shapes and sizes.
The larger you want your highlight to be, the larger (or closer) your soft box has to be to the subject.
This photograph shows a reflective subject photographed with a smooth highlight created by a soft box (left) and the same subject photographed with a larger soft box, creating a larger highlight (right).
100mm, 1.6, f/16, 320 100mm, 1.6, f/16, 320
As you move the soft box around your subject, the highlight’s position and shape change (in accordance with the subject’s form). Your main goal should be to portray the subject in the most flattering and descriptive way possible, so choose a position for the soft box that gives viewers a sense of the subject’s true form.
Using a scrim for highlights
You can use a scrim (a light-modifying diffusion material) to perform the same job as a soft box. Clamping one to the table and shining a flash or strobe through it creates a large light source that’s very near to the subject. This helps to maximize how much of the subject’s reflective surface is affected by the scrim.
You can buy a scrim at most photo supply shops, or you can make your own from a canvas frame with any thin, white fabric stretched over it. Doing so is a great, cheap way to turn any light into a soft box.
Using a light tent for jewelry
Some small product and jewelry photographers prefer to use a light tent (a cube-shaped structure with white fabric walls and a seamless interior) for lighting their subjects. Light tents provide a pure white surrounding that eliminates unwanted reflections in a reflective subject. They’re also lightweight and collapsible, making them easy to travel with and set up anywhere.
Bouncing light with foam core
Foam core, which you can find at any hobby or art-supply store, is another option for adding light to your reflective subjects. When you light the surface of the foam core, the reflective surface of the subject reveals the foam core as a smooth highlight.
Direct light onto the foam core rather than the subject itself. By moving the foam core closer to your subject, you create larger highlights that cover more of the subject’s surface area. Move it farther out to reduce the size of the highlights. A thin strip of foam core creates a thin highlight, and a wider piece creates a wider highlight.
The angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence, meaning that the angle at which you shoot a reflective surface determines what your camera sees in the surface’s reflection. If your camera is positioned at a 45-degree angle to the subject’s surface, then the foam core shows up best in the reflective surface when it’s positioned at the opposite 45-degree angle.
You can also use a piece of foam core to add secondary highlights to a subject. A soft box was used to create the highlight in the first image. In the bottom photo, a piece of foam core was used to create a more interesting photograph by adding a secondary highlight.
100mm, 1/160, f/22, 400