Have Fun Shooting Stills

Lecture at Estúdio Brasil 2010

The word “still”, as it is used in Photography, comes from a reduction of “still life”.  To most, shooting stills is a very tedious practice with little appeal. But if you’re interested in learning several lighting techniques, from basic to sophisticated, the best option is to start shooting products. From a little diamond ring to huge settings, light is key. Only then comes the aesthetical sensibility and the photographer’s style. Of all fields within Photography, the most diverse and productive is Still Photography. New products are released daily; new cosmetics, new recipes, new drinks, new food, juices, water, clothes etc. The dynamics of the market forces clients to renew their products visuals and packages in order to stand out. There will always be a lot of work.

Other Advantages

For those starting a career, shooting stills has yet greater advantages. There’s no pressure from a large production crew, but ease and tranquility. The photographer has full control and time to study, prepare and compose his subjects and his light — one doesn’t take a picture; one makes a picture.

The Still Studio

Differently from a fashion studio, where the photographer has in principle only light and camera devices, the still photographer, given the great variety of situations he faces each day, relies on many tools and gadgets. I usually say that there are at least one thousand ways of setting up a studio. Each photographer has his peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. I would even go far as betting that there are no identical studios in this business.


A people specialist, in his studio, will prefer to use flash light, which freezes the natural movement. A still photographer, though, may and should use tungsten light i.e. continuous light, in order to have more control of the lighting nuances over his subjects. When one uses a flash light one can’t know in advance how the picture is going to look like, since one sees it with one light (a modeling light) and shoots with another (the flash light itself). The greatest advantage in using tungsten is that what you see is what you get.


What I’ll show today are cheap and straightforward solutions for the ones who can’t invest much and have a practical spirit. Some gadgets ideas I took from others and some I developed myself in my adventures through the world of Photography.

1. Apple-box, pancake-box and half-pancake-box – These have a lot of use in the studio. To me, they’re essential, and they can be piled up in several different configurations etc.

2. Pot Stands – also called… poor photographer’s tripods. They’re very practical and functional, taking less than the space a mounted tripod would take and are also very stable. They’re built from 2×2’s, a gallon can and concrete. In order to build one, before sticking the batten in the can, one should use nails to prevent its sliding after it stiffens — refer to the image below. One very important hint is that before using the can, its bottom should be hammered in, so it won’t bulge once the concrete hardens on its own weight.

Below, in (1) we see pot-stands. In (2), a pot-stand with what I call a “corner” attached to it with a clamp. This contraption allows for a great variety of settings and, as the pot-stand is heavy, stability is guaranteed. Finally, in (3), pot-stands used to support the subject and reflectors posistioning — one white, one silver.

3. Fixed corners – these gadgets in (1) work as pot-stands arms, so to speak. By joining the two with the help of a clamp we have a tool of great value to the studio. It’s versatile, safe, takes very little space and is very cheap, only limited in its function by the photographer’s creativity.

4. Minibooms – 1. (a) metal base, (b) flat iron rod, (c) pivot with wooden peg, (d) wood extension. 2. Set up boom. 3. Boom with a white bounce card facing upwards. 4. Boom with a silver card turned downwards. 5. Boom with varied extensions. 6. Pivot detail.

Bottle Pre-Production

In the lecture, we prepared two bottles. Below, you will find a step-by-step guide on how to perform the pre-production of a bottle for a still shot.

1. The paper labels are never properly or symmetrically bonded in bottles. For their removal, let the bottle soaked in water for a couple of hours; that’s what makes the label come off the bottle. Thus, the glue dissolves and the paper comes off without much effort.

2. In the case of plastic labels, it’s unnecessary to soak the bottle. For each type of adhesive glue there’s a corresponding chemical solvent proper to its removal. In this case, we used bestine. To remove the expiration date printed directly on the bottle, we used alcohol.

3. It is advisable to remove the label carefully to avoid any residual adhesive or paper in the bottle. The label may now be disposed of, since the client usually provides new labels with photographic quality, in order to streamline the postproduction.

4. The bottle is put aside while we prepare a spray booth, which can be of any sort, so as not to let the content of the spray spread all across the studio. It is recommended that the application of any spray be made outdoors with the aid of a mask, due to the chemical toxicity involved. Once the spray booth has been built, which can be reused many times, we apply adhesive permanent spray on the loose label sent by the client — in the illustration, right in the center of the cabin.

5. Next, we glue the label on the bottle. The adhesive should be permanent fixing to guarantee the label’s fixation, so do it with caution and precision.

6. Again, we leave the bottle aside while making a protective mask, so that one side of the bottle to receives a layer of spray while the other is left intact. We cut a piece of paper as the height of the bottle and half of its approximate circumference, so that the mask can wrap it.

7. Each side of the cut paper is taped with masking tape so it can be affixed to the bottle.

8. First, cover the front of the bottle so as to completely hide the front and leave the back exposed.

9. Glaze the back of the bottle with matte varnish. After completely covering the back with a layer of varnish, we leave the bottle aside to dry. Only after that will the cylinder receive another layer. Repeat this operation around four times to obtain the desired effect.

10. Now we cover the back of the bottle with the mask, while the front is left exposed, ready to receive some layers of varnish.

11. Now we repeat the 8th step — only with glossy varnish.

12. Finally, for the drops, we use a solution of water and glycerin. The ratio may vary according to the result you want. In our example, we use 1/1. Use the type of sprinkler you prefer to control the outcome. But make no mistake: This step is very subjective and subject to many interpretations. In advertising there are beverage stylists for this type of production, which can result in hours of work. Applying the drops so that the bottle looks refreshing is the biggest challenge of pre-production. It’s advisable to prepare several bottles before starting the freshness production, because the solution of glycerine will spot the varnished surface if you try to remove it in order to try again.

13. Surface tension — It is the property of the surface of a liquid that enables it to withstand external forces. In our case, it regards the behavior of droplets on the surface of our products. This is the main reason for the brilliant varnish in the face of the bottle: it makes up for a “loose” aspect in the droplets. Remember for instance that when waxing a car, the rain water that falls runs more smoothly and the drops are easily released. It’s the same effect that natureprovides us with the dewdrops on the leaves of plants.

Transparency and Reflectance

These factors depend exclusively on the lighting technique, as will be shown by the following examples.

1. Top light: here light acts only upon the top of the subject and outlines the high-relief shape.

2. Top light with white reflector: with this we begin to reveal the characteristics of the product. This setting shows the subject’s shape, which is a glass bottle.

3. Top light with two white reflectors: other details are revealed, but in a symmetrical fashion. This setting may be less interesting, aesthetically speaking — even though this much is open to interpretation.

4. Top light with silver reflector: like in example (1), only with a silver reflex, as the contrast is more pronounced. The thick green glass wall of the bottle is even more noticeable in the opposite side.

5. Top light with two silver reflectors: just like in example (3), there’s less aesthetical interest due to the perfect symmetry.

6. Top light with silver reflector posistioned behind the product: a reflector is cut in the shape of the bottle so it can be hidden in a blind spot. Notice that there are only a light source and a reflector. In this case, the incidence angle of the light on the reflector must match the angle of reflection of the lens.

7. Final shoot. With a subtle freshness effect, we reach our goal: appetite appeal.

8. White background. In this shoot we used the same lighting of (1), albeit in a white background.

9. Diagonal light: a very versatile technique; more features of the product are brought to attention by a simple change in light direction.

10. Diagonal light with a white reflector: more features revealed and, on account of the light direction, the undesired symmetry isn’t any longer present.

11. Diagonal light with silver reflector: like in (10), only with intensified contrast.

12. This diagram shows what is basic about these pictures with lateral light: 1. black background; 2. light diffuser (of which a soft-box is just one example); 3. light source; 4. subject.

13. Now this one shows the basic scheme of a white background shoot: 1. white background; 2. light sources; 3. white reflectors; 4. light diffuser; 5. subject. Observe that light in the diagram is represented laterally/diagonally, but it could  be used as a top or strip light also — the technique for the background does not vary.

14. Strip light: even with a large diffuser it’s possible to reach the so-called strip light effect. It suffices to cover a part of the diffuser with a gobo.

15. Contour light: this one is used only to outline the bottles silhouette, a very useful light to highlight the subject’s shape in a subtle way. The diagram below illustrates this configuration.

16. In this diagram: 1. black background; 2. white reflectors; 3. tungsten light sources; 4. our subject — in our case, a bottle; 5. the gobos (contraction of “go between”), which work as light blockers. Notice that the gobos, besides hiding reflectors and light sources, stop the reflected light to hit the lens in excess, thus avoiding undesired flair.


I would like to point out again that lighting is key to a good picture. Today, in the digital era, with automatic cameras and streamlined post-production, the photographer as a technician is not as much needed as before. As shown above, what we have left is the most noble part of photography: that which can’t be automatized, that is, we have to run after new solutions, applying subtle combinations of different techniques that in the end will make a difference. If we give a certain briefing to fifty photographers, we’ll have fifty different pictures. So, in order to be successful, challenges must be taken as puzzles, thus making work enjoyable — even when it’s still photography!

Success to all!
ABRAFOTO – Brazilian Association of Advertising Photographers

25 years of ethics, professionalism, legal advice, equipment insurance etc. — www.abrafoto.org / abrafoto@abrafoto.org