How to turn a white set for a product photograph black in 3 seconds. 

 May 21, 2010

By  Pascal Depuhl

I create images for a Miami based company, that creates a variety of high end cosmetic products for men and women. The product photography for their packaging needs to be clean, simple and strong. And shot on a black set and a white set (black for the web, white for print).

Take today for example – a new product line launches and they need all 8 products shot on white – and on black. What I would do in the past is shoot on white paper and plexiglass for the white set and then reset up the shots on black plexi with a black background – 8 products x 2 set ups =  16 styled shots.

But I want to show you a trick, in this mini tutorial, on how to set up the shots one time and shoot the white set and the black set within 3 seconds of each other. First of all here are the two shots we’re talking about:

Packaging product photograph on the white set.

Same product – same set up – 3 sec set change. Find out how on the next page …

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I had shot some test concepts for the client a few weeks ago, while we  were waiting for the samples to arrive, so I already have my camera angles, distances, lighting … finished and documented.

This is a page in my note book that lives in my shooting bag to write down (and later on be able to find) my shoot notes. Back to turning white into black. Let me show you the set up from the point of view of the camera:

In the foreground is my Sinar X large format camera (my favorite camera) with a Phase One P45+ digital back that’s gonna produce the 100+MB files this client wants. In the center of the shot you see the product standing on plexiglass (see the reflections?) and the white background paper. So far so good you say – I know how to light a white set I want to know how to make it black! Well here’s the trick: the sheet of plexi that is product is standing on is black. But you say – wait a second (actually if you wait 3 sec it’s gonna turn black) – I see it white in the photo above. Remember your high school physics class: angle of incidence = angle of reflection. What does the black plexi mirror? The brightly lit white background paper, i.E. the camera does not see the surface but the reflection inside the surface, the white paper. So let me show you what this looks like from the top:

Looking down onto the plexi

Now you see the reflection of the light on the bottom (the half round reflector) the reflection of the product itself, … but how do you get the white paper to be black? That’s the easiest part of the whole set up. The light you see on the shot above is directly overhead of the product and does not light the background. The Two lights that light the background are on a switch, so CLICK one shot on a white set (turn of background lights) CLICK shoot photograph with no light on backgound = black set. Time elapsed: 3 seconds.

  • This looks like a really easy solution. That said, the one wild card is the Art Director who asks us to violate physics to get what they want so it looks “more natural” when in reality, it isn’t. Oy! For example, they don’t want the overhead light over head but instead from the side. If I understand correctly, it’s still just a matter of keeping the product light from spilling over to the background, no matter what direction it comes from correct?

  • Dear Athos,

    You actually don’t need to have the wall painted green – you’re main concerns are going to be the reflections in the actual product them itself, so my suggestions would be to have them take the photos in the dessert, where the only thing that reflects in the trailer is the sky and the sand (plus that may be some great photos you can use on the website.

    You can send the new images to me, we actually physically draw a path around the trailer, which gives you a much cleaner edge than an alpha channel. Creating this path takes a pretty short time and I am happy to do this for you at no cost, since I believe in the mission of this trailer company.

    As per the second items, that’s a little trickier, since if you shoot glass against white, it will look white (a good photographer can light it in a way to get the detail of the surface), but you can’t easily change the color. I would shoot this against the true color that you will be using this on the website, if I understand this correctly.

    Thanks for the questions, hope this helps and I need to get one of those trailers – they are awesome!


  • Hi D, wanted to ask you two photography q’s. I’m finishing three websites for clients two of which need some tweeking in terms of the images I got to use from them.

    One is a 4×4 monster trailer that someone in church builds – missiontrailers.co.za – thats the old site – I asked them to spray one wall of their factory green and have the guy’s wife take pics (she is a photographer like you, though nowhere near as good) of a trailer from various angles backed by this green wall. My idea is then to edit out the green and have a clean image of the trailer I can use with a transparent or alpha background – I have some javascript tricks that I need this for ;) – What I am not sure of is whether this is in fact the best way to do this without spending a fortune. Do you have any tricks to turn normal photographed objects into ones with the background removed?

    The second is similar to what you have here though the topic or subject of the images are somewhat difficult to capture. The company produces glass finishes (protection, anti slip, chip resistant, and so on) and I want to use images with the various effects from such products against a clean background that I can then put onto the site, again without the cluttered background. You have any ideas here too?

    Otherwise rediscovering web design from 16 years ago has been fun :) It has paid for our rent these past two months so I am quite happy about it.



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    Pascal Depuhl

    Miami product photographer, video producer, cinematographer and chief mindchanger at Photography by Depuhl I love to share the knowledge I've gained over the past two decades. Catching light in motion.