Balloons and Background Lights

Most of the time catalog photography is pretty straight forward. White background, light the product, click, you’re done. Occasionally though I get a product that throws me for a loop and requires some trial and error, and a lot of frustration before the answer reveals itself.

Such was the case of this necklace I was photographing last week. This was part of a batch of about 70 pieces of jewelry, and I’ve shot over 500 pieces for this company. Usually, for necklaces, I hang them in front of a translucent panel of plastic that is backlight to give me a pure white background. By hanging the necklace a few inches in front of the panel, I am able to not blow out the edges of the necklace, which is critical when they are silver.

So my first attempt at photographing this necklace looked like this.

Silver and Ruby Necklace

The client came back and said they needed the necklace to be photographed showing the whole necklace, and draped as it would be as it was worn. Ok, I figured I could lay it flat and photograph it that way. However, this opened up a can of worms that had me pulling my hair out for a couple of days.

The first problem was that the necklace wasn’t made to lay flat and it was similar to the problem of trying to make a flat map of the world. Complicating that issue was that I was working with pre-production pieces and the beads were tied so tight that they tended to kink, and the client wanted them to look smooth. Laying flat on a light table, I tried for an hour to get everything to lay correctly. But try as I might, as soon as I would try to smooth the second string, the first string would get jostled and I would have to start over. Short of super gluing the beads in place I didn’t think I would ever get it to work.

The second problem was that by having the necklace right on the light table, by the time I got enough light to make the background pure white, the ruby beads were glowing and the silver beads were blown out.

The third problem was that there were four similar necklaces, and the client wanted them to be photographed as identically as possible.

The final problem was that the client needed the necklaces back the next day to ship them back east which only added to the pressure.

I went home that night trying to think of a solution. I have a mannequin in the studio and putting the necklace on the mannequin I could see how it looked and it did hang much better, but there was no way to photograph the entire necklace that way. What I needed was something that would allow the necklace to drape that way but not have a neck. I thought about building some kind of form out of styrofoam or plaster, but as I needed to return the necklace the next day that left little time to build any kind of prop.

Lighing setup

Then I thought about using a balloon, and if I could find a large white balloon, it would work for diffusing the light as well as supporting the necklace. So the next morning I went to Walgreens and hit pay dirt with a white punching balloon. Returning to the studio, I set the background light on short stand, and pointed it directly up. I attached a snoot to the front, not only to provide some support for the balloon, but even with the modeling light off, I didn’t want the head of the flash to explode the balloon. The balloon was taped to the snoot, and then the first necklace was laid on top of the balloon.

Not only did the balloon provide the perfect curved surface for the necklace, its non-slip surface made it a lot easier to gently nudge the strands where I wanted them without moving the neighboring strands. Once I had the first one in position the way I wanted it, I marked the top, bottom and sides with tape so I could lay the other three in a similar pattern.

The camera was mounted on a 10 foot ladder, and I shot directly down on the balloon.

Shooting position

Then it was simply a matter of taking two shots. The first shot I had the background light on, in addition to the softbox that was the key light. This blew out the background so I would be able to make a mask for the second shot.

The second shot, I turned the background light off and only used the key light, which gave the right color to the rubies and protected the edges of the silver beads.

Then using the mask created from the first shot, I applied it to the second shot. I still had to so some manual masking in Photoshop for the silver beads because the contrast level between the silver beads and the background made it hard to find the edges.

Ruby Necklace

Here is the final shot sent to the client.