Lunch atop a (Springfield) skyscraper

Lunch atop a (Springfield) skyscraper
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I'm a new photographer, and I'm trying to take photos of a product with a pure white background (#ffffff). I'm using a light box (something like this one), so my lighting should be solid.

But I can't seem to find the right settings for a good photo. I've taken lots of photos (100+), with a lot of different settings and basically my photos are either overexposed, or the background is not white. Here are some examples:


product great, background too gray

The product is great on this photo. Only the background is WAY to grey.

f/8 -- 1/2000 sec -- ISO-6400


background white, product overexposed

The background is pure white. But the product is overexposed.

f/8 -- 1/320 -- ISO-6400


too gray and overexposed product Too grey and the product is overexposed

f/22 -- 1/200 -- ISO/128000

Based on feedback, I have adjusted the exposure parameters and gotten somewhat better results, but that that alone doesn't solve the fundamental problem. What else do I need to do to get a pure white background without overexposing the subject?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

There are many improvements that could be made here. Firstly, you need to use a much longer exposure, and a lower ISO setting. Get a tripod, even a cheap one, and use mirror lockup. Could do with stopping down a bit further for depth of field.

Post processing

You might be able to get away with your current shots, with some post processing. Here I've taken the second shot and used levels to darken the product whilst leaving the background pure white:


The proper solution is to look at your lighting. The reason that you cant get the right balance no matter what settings you use is that both the product and background are being lit by the same source, so you can only alter the brightness of both, not each one individually.

Usually you'd have one light for your subject and one for the background. This gives you the correct amount of control for optimum results. However that is only if you have a large curved white background. Compact light tents such as the one you're using wont allow you to light your subject individually.

One solution is to black out any parts of the light tent not visible in the shot. That way the amount of light hitting your subject will be decreased, making it darker, without affecting the brightness of the background (since you wont touch any parts that are in shot). Get some thick black card, cut it to size and tape it inside the light tent.

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Thanks for the answer Matt. I can get decent photos with some photoshopping, but it's a lot of work and I plan on making a lot of photos. So thats why I want to get it right "at the source". I think I understand a little bit better why the light tent is bad. The trick with blacking out sounds good, i'll try that! – K120 Apr 22 '13 at 12:26
If you standardize your settings when you shoot you can batch apply the same actions to all of the photos in many RAW convertors very easily. – Michael Clark Apr 22 '13 at 13:26
I'm going to accept this as my solution, thank you. I've learnt that while my settings aren't perfect, it's mostly a problem with lightning that I'm dealing with (as you and others have explained). I don't have a result yet that I'm satisfied with, but I think I do know how to get it now. I'll start a new topic if I don't ;). Thanks to everybody for the great help, I've learned a lot! – K120 Apr 22 '13 at 14:37

The white background effect is usually done by lighting the background and the subject separately, you can't do this with such a small box.

There are no camera settings that will help you because your problem is that the difference in brightness between the background and subject is too small - and everything that makes the picture darker or brighter affects both.

What you can do with such a box is to select the settings that correctly expose the subject and then use the levels or curves tool of your favorite photo editor to make the background pure white - that will only work if the subject is darker than the background, it will not work if the subject is white or brightly colored.

A simple way to achieve white background is to place the subject on a transparent material (and piece of glass or clear plastic will do) and point a flash at the wall behind the subject, the distance between the subject and wall is what lets you blast light into the background without it over exposing the subject.

I blogged about it a while ago here, this doesn't have to be expensive - for the pictures in the blog post I've used the clear plastic from an IKEA picture frame and a $40 flash in a small room that doesn't even have white walls.

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Darn. I was told this box was perfect for things like this. I'll look into your method, the examples you've shown are perfect. – K120 Apr 22 '13 at 12:01
+1 this is really the correct answer, the background needs more light – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 25 '13 at 21:56

You have several opportunities to improve your results!

  • The first thing I would do is increase the light enough to get the ISO down to native resolution for your camera. Probably ISO 100 or 200.

  • You can get the same depth of field (DoF) by increasing the focal length and the focus distance by the same proportion. This will improve the perspective and your box won't look warped. By centering your focus on the nearer part of the box you can utilize the property of DoF that the portion of the DoF behind the center of focus will be more than the portion on front of the center of focus. In your first example I would aim for the space between the red and black rings. The eye expects the nearer part of an object to be the most in focus. It appears you centered focus on the left part of the box that is further away than the rest of the visible parts of the box.

  • The next thing I would do is shoot manually and vary the shutter speed (Tv) until the white background is on the verge of blowing out. Some people refer to this as exposing to the right (ETTR). Since your meter thinks everything is 18% grey, it will be screaming that you are overexposing by 2-3 stops. Your tripod will allow you to use slower shutter speeds without inducing motion blur.

  • Since you are saving your pictures as RAW files (aren't you?), when you open them in an image editor you can raise the level of the highlights and then the overall exposure until the background does blow out. Then adjust your shadows. If the colors don't look right set your white balance before you blow out the background. Most image editors will let you tell it that the background is white or you can adjust the color temperature until the background is white. Increasing the contrast setting will also increase the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene.

Here's my stab at editing the second shot you posted. In addition to noise reduction I desaturated the color a little to help reduce the noise. This was with a noisy JPEG. Much more can be done with a RAW file.

edited DSC01292

And the 5th shot, which was much less noisy and exposed more to the right. Again, A RAW file would allow even better results.

edited image #5

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If you want to have the same effect as a arrow aperture you should not have a long focal length. A long focal length will decrease DoF and a narrow aperture will increase DoF. – damned truths Apr 22 '13 at 11:44
What you say is true at the same focus distance. A longer shooting distance will increase the focus distance which will increase the DoF. – Michael Clark Apr 22 '13 at 11:55
Thank you for the detailed answer! I have added some more photos with a lower ISO, which is indeed better. If I understand correctly, I should find a setting where the photo is overexposed (like DSC01325?) and then play around with shutter speed some more? – K120 Apr 22 '13 at 12:05
@DNN the problem is not your camera settings, a faster or slower shutter will brighten/darken both the subject and the background, it wont differentially adjust subject background brightness, which is what you need. You need to look at post-processing or changing the lighting to do this. – Matt Grum Apr 22 '13 at 12:15
Take a series of test shots and use the image histogram to set the shutter speed long enough that you are just short of clipping highlights. For more on how to use the histogram to expose to the right see You'll still need to separate the brightness of the background and the brightness of the product in post production using the light curve controls. – Michael Clark Apr 22 '13 at 12:26

Select the object (product) so you can adjust background and object separately. It may be possible to do everything with lights, but the simple solution is to select the product using Photoshop (or whatever tool you use). Then the background can go to all white and the product can be adjusted properly. This will eliminate or at least lessen the flaring on the right side. Of course the lighter the background compared with the product the easier it will be to get good results, so all the photography advice helps...

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This is particularly easy when the subject has hard edges, like the example ink cartridge box. When there are softer edges, or fine details, it's really hard to get the selection perfect. – mattdm May 21 '15 at 12:32

Use some translucent perspex, it flexible so will bend for the curve, and place a light or lights behind it for your background, this way you can balance the lighting.also use black card around the edges of the box so you dont get those nasty reflections, and then cut out the card or paper thats in the shot with photoshop

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Another thing to be aware of here is the post processing our brains do; brightness values are also adjusted by the brain. We don't tend to notice this, but without this effect we would have difficulties recognising object due to changes in the lighting conditions. So, it's actually quite a big effect. Even though an object in a shadow looks darker, it actually would look a lot darker than it actually does without the brain modifying the brightness in its post processing.

In a picture you may see strange things due to this effect if the brain will tend to make wrong assumptions about the lighting conditions when looking at the picture. Take e.g. the following picture:

enter image description here

The top square looks a lot darker than the bottom square, however, they have exactly the same brighness. The reason why we percieve a brighness difference is because the brain thinks that the bottom square is in a shadow while the top square is exposed to bright light. This prompts the brain to increase the brightness of the lower square relative to the top square.

If you put your finger between the two squares so that you don't see the boundary between them, then the effect goes away, the two squares will look as bright.

Now, in the posted pictures this effect will also play a role when comparing the different pictures with each other. Not only will the camera expose differently when the brightness of the object relative to the background is changed, your brain will then also change its own post processing which will then change the effect we actually observe.

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You may find this could be a metering issue or colour temperature issue.

Use the correct WB setting on your camera for the type of light in your lightbox. Then also use spot metering on the product itself, ensuring your aperture is set small enough for complete front-to-back sharpness.

As well as the constant lighting within the box itself I would perhaps recommend that you use a flash to light the product too. This will balance the exposure between the product and the background...

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I'll try using a flash again. The last time I did, it ended up highlighting the product badly and not evenly. And I figured the lighting was good because of the box. Thanks for the tip on spot metering. First time I've heard about it, i'll look into it! – K120 Apr 22 '13 at 12:04
-1 I don't see how firing a flash into the box is going to fix the problem of the product being too bright compared to the background. Nor do I see how this can be a problem with white balance. – Matt Grum Apr 22 '13 at 12:11
Just a guess based off the last portrait session I did where I lit the background and the subject separately. Thought maybe the same would apply to this as I figured maybe the dynamic range was too great for the camera to handle. By illuminating the subject as well as the background you even it out. – Mike Apr 22 '13 at 12:21
But he wants to increase contrast, not decrease it. – Michael Clark Apr 22 '13 at 12:36

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