Light It Up—Getting the Best Lighting for Tabletop Photography

In this article, Rio Grande photographers discuss the tips and trick they use (and you can use) to beautifully light jewelry pieces for the best possible image.

Authored by Emily Horne and Kayla Torres – Photographers, Rio Grande Photo Studio

Last edited: 7/6/2019
Rio Grande photographers Emily Horne and Kayla Torres discuss the set-up for a piece of jewelry.
Before and after shots of a ring showing the difference with overhead light and reflectors

BEFORE (left): Silver ring with overhead light and no reflector. AFTER (right): Silver ring with V–shaped reflector bouncing light onto ring.

Something to Reflect On

No matter what your light source is, reflectors are the best way to control exactly where light falls on your pieces. Our favorite reflectors are simply cut out of silver or gold metallic foil poster board. Dick Blick carries handy crescent boards that you can fold in half and set around your piece to "bounce" in the light. You can also use white poster board or white foam core, and cut out custom shapes to fit your scene. We are fond of this "V" shape (see photo at right) because it surrounds the ring but leaves space for your camera. Here you can see the dramatic difference a little reflector makes on this ring. We are simply bouncing the light that is on top and behind the ring back to the front. It's difficult to light your pieces from the front because any lighting equipment will block the camera. Bouncing the light just in the areas where it’s needed allows you to customize your light direction without compromising your line of sight. When you think of your reflectors as little customizable lights, your lighting options become limitless.

Third hands holding a piece of silver crescent board.

Third hands holding a piece of silver crescent board.

A Helping Hand

A very helpful tool for holding reflectors or foam core is a "third hand." We sell this third hand with weighted base here at Rio to help with soldering tasks. We love securing our reflectors with them and use them every day. The photo at right shows them holding a piece of reflective poster board at an angle to light up a bust. Experiment with other holders such as clothespins, clamps, binder clips or small easels.

Find Your Place in the Sun

The most budget–friendly option is using available light from windows or skylights. Setting up your tabletop studio next to a window on a sunny day allows you to harness natural light and modify it to fit your needs. You can find useful Dos and Don’ts of natural lighting by checking out this blog post by the Pixc Team. The great thing about natural light is that, besides being readily available, it preserves the color of your piece. (Fluorescent lights can change the hue of your shot and give you too much yellow, while LED lights will give you too much blue.) This benefit will also help speed up your postprocessing time. Styling your pieces on models or hanging jewelry from the branch of a shady tree on a bright day is a fast and easy way to get images for social media or client approval. Just remember that when shooting outside, you will not have as much control of the light as in your studio. Nonetheless, shooting outside in natural light is great for finished pieces.

Sometimes You’ve Got to Do It Yourself

Household lighting, such as adjustable lamps and clamp lights, is a great way to illuminate your tabletop without going over budget. These gooseneck lamps give a beautiful soft light; they also clamp onto your table and are endlessly adjustable.

Experiment with lamps in combination with your natural light to help light up any dark areas in your photograph. Garage lights like clamp lights or large work floodlights are affordable options for powerful lighting, but you will need to diffuse any “hard” (too-intense) light.

A standard tabletop set-up in Rio's Photo Studio

A standard tabletop set-up in Rio's Photo Studio

No Throwing Shade

If your window or artificial light is too harsh, it can cast deep shadows on your pieces. In that case, you’ll need to mellow out your light with a diffuser. Frosted Plexiglas is durable and sturdy, and when pieced together with packing tape, it can stand freely around the product you’re shooting. This works best with harsher lights. When diffusing window light, hang up white velum over the window–or for a more permanent solution, use sheer white curtains. If you need to diffuse a stronger light, like a work lamp, a cheap white shower curtain stretched over a frame works wonders. A large white T-shirt stretched over a 16" x 20" picture frame is another quick solution.

In the Rio's Photo Studio, we use one large softbox over each table. Specifically, we use a 36" x 48" Glow box by Flashpoint or an Impact box by Luxbanx Duo. The large softbox surrounds reflective jewelry with an even "sky–like" light and is comparable in size to the photo stand. It is imperative to have a sturdy stand for heavy lights and softboxes; we recommend a century stand or "C–stand" and sandbags for stability.

Continuous vs. Strobe Lighting

There are arguments surrounding continuous vs. strobe lighting. Don’t know the difference between the two? Continuous lighting is constant light at a higher wattage, giving you the light you need for great photography. Strobes have a modeling bulb that stays on continuously but then flashes with each shot you take. If you are shooting larger items like machines or models that need more overall light, a multi-light strobe system may give you the best results for consistent sharpness and quality. Strobes also stop movement. You might find you have issues with blurring when shooting dangling earrings or hanging chains. Using a strobe stops all movement and allows you to get sharp, clear shots every time. There are a huge variety of strobe systems; the AlienBees at paulcuff.com are affordable, popular ones.

Rio Studio's model, Kendall.

Rio Studio's model, Kendall.

As for continuous lighting, what you see is what you get—which is great for controlling the light with reflectors. If you are using a big enough softbox, continuous lighting will give you beautiful and even lighting that doesn’t falter. You rarely have to adjust your lights position and can “stack” images, getting perfect sharpness at all points of your piece (as long as it’s completely still). You can find many versions of continuous lighting out there, but our favorites are the Norman Allure C1000 Tungsten lights. These offer two settings that do not change the color temperature–so important when shooting multiple products that need to stay consistent in color! These specific lights have a great warmth to them and mimic natural lighting very closely. You need to be careful when purchasing continuous lights, however, to avoid anything that does not have a built-in fan to cool your lights. Don’t buy anything with a florescent or LED bulb, either. The lights will easily overheat without a fan, leaving you waiting in-between shots or ultimately burning up your lights or even softboxes.

So to sum it all up, you don’t have to have big, expensive equipment to get great lighting. You can start out with easy, readily available resources–including natural light, foil reflectors and diffusers. And if you’re ready to make the leap and buy some gear, we hope you now have an idea of what to look for. Now it’s time to grab those jewelry pieces, clear off your table and get to shooting. Enjoy!