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At work we are currently in the process of photographing samples of materials. The idea is to photograph them to show their structure/properties more than their shape (i.e. if we have a steel cog, we want to show a close-up of the surface and not just a picture of a cog). We are using a macro lens to enable us to get these close-up pictures.

Some of the materials that we are photographing however are just flat plastic sheets. We have several types of plastic, so want to do something so that they don't just all look the same.

What is the best way to photograph them? An additional challenge is that some of them are clear and transparent. How do we photograph these?


As an example, we have this sample:

which we have photographed like this:

and here is an example of a transparent sample:


EDIT: A lot of the discussion is focused on the transparent aspect of the samples. While this is good as we have several of these and the suggested techniques show how to show off the transparency, we also have some that are opaque which we need to photograph in the same way. For example:

  • What is the purpose of it all. Documentation or marketing? – Hugo Jan 28 '14 at 10:11
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    @Hugo: Marketing really. We are a company that provide information on materials, and this is part of a small marketing site to show off some of that data. We want some nice photos of the materials to go along with the data. – adrianbanks Jan 28 '14 at 10:13
  • I see. Are there some special surface properties like roughness or coating maybe? If so you could be creative with that – Hugo Jan 28 '14 at 10:15
  • For these samples, unfortunately no. They are just smooth, flat, square plastic sheets. Hence the trouble we are having photographing them :) – adrianbanks Jan 28 '14 at 10:20
  • Ok, then I would darken the set and use a flash set up to make interesting lighting effects within the plastic itself. Think the prisma in Pink Floyd's "Dark side of the moon", even though the refraction won't be as spectacular. – Hugo Jan 28 '14 at 10:29
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To address your second question first: Transparent subjects can be tough to photograph in a flattering manner, but there are a couple of good lighting set ups that give pleasing results.

In bright field lighting, you set up your subject in front of a bright white background that just fills the frame. The area outside the bright background should be dark. The background can either be lit from behind (e.g. a softbox diffuser) or from the front (e.g. white card with a flash aimed at it.). The bright background will shine though the subject, but its edges will be clearly outlined in black, caused by refraction of the dark areas surrounding the bright background. Here is an example: bright field lighting examplehttp://www.flickr.com/photos/10295241@N02/12165904053/

In dark field lighting, the setup is reversed. The subject is in front of a dark, unlit background that just fills the frame, and the surrounding area just outside the frame is brightly light (e.g. a dark card in front of a brightly lit background). The subject will be dark like the background, but its edges will be bright due to refracting the bright area just outside the frame. Here is an example: edark field lighting examplehttp://www.flickr.com/photos/10295241@N02/10917903153/

For additional details on these and other lighting techniques, I strongly recommend the book "Light Science and Magic", which takes a first principles approach to using light in photography.

To address your first question, how best to present your "flat, boring subjects" really depends on the constraints you are operating under. You could look at product photography in catalogs and advertisements to gets some ideas of how to present your product. One option might be to set the subject against a separately lit seamless white background. Optionally, the subject could be placed on a reflective surface (as in the bowls picture above) to a reflection of the subject to make it more interesting than just floating alone in space. Another option might be to place the subject in an interesting setting, perhaps in or suggestive of the context in which it would be used (workshop? drafting table?). Yet another option might be to have the subject held by a hand model. What works best for you may depend on both your creativity as well as the limits imposed by the final context of the images.

  • I'd like to add to this that your bright field lighting example above shows the objects placed on a reflective surface, I think that in itself can be a useful method to enhance the image when photographing subjects like this :) – laurencemadill Jan 30 '14 at 12:36
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Lighting is going to be very key. It is also probably a good idea to have a background or some object behind them (but out of focus) that can demonstrate their level of transparency clearly. You will have to play around with it, but you probably want one light to be positioned to be at-least close to incident with the plastic to show how much it reflects (the highlighting on the plastic will make it more visual interesting than just a flat matte plastic).

As far as a background object, you might want to set up multiple samples at different angles that overlap. This would let it still be the product in the shot, but if you had three different pieces positioned in an interesting way and overlapping each other you would get a nice feel for the transparency.

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I would show the transparency with a split background. The plastic rectangle is laid down on the table, one half is over clean white background, one half is over a small-patterned background (e.g. color+white checkered). I would not use perspective, just plain top view, but that up to you. If translucency is important, I would cast light through the plastic on the white part of the split background, and I would raise the plastic a bit so you get a bit of diffuse light cast.

Now, if reflectivity is a key, I would show that with a different setup. I would put down the plastic rectangle on the table vertically, totally facing me, would cast a light on the left corner angling down on the rectangle, and casting reflected light on the bottom right, on the table (I am a bit above the table level, so I see the surface of the table). If the reflected light is colorized, I would use a neutral white lamp for this. A harmonizing background color (simple or gradient) could be a nice complenent to this setup.

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