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Knife Set

Photographing knives can teach you all about reflective metal objects and the best way to light them. For this photo, I upped the stakes a little and posed three knives together, each at a slightly different angle. Lighting the background separately adds some separation from the knives. This image needs five Speedlights. One lights the background, one lights the overall scene, and each knife has a separate light on it to cause the reflection in the blades. The hardest part of this photo is getting the right angles on the Speedlights in front that create the bright reflections on the blades. Each has to be adjusted until it’s just right.


This photo needs more gear because each of the knives needs its own Speedlight to create the reflection off the blade. If you want to try this but don’t have a lot of lights, try it with just one knife and don’t light the background. Then instead of five Speedlights, you can do it with two.

Here is the gear needed for the photo:

  • Knife set: I used a set of three throwing knifes because they are all the same and contain a lot of metal to reflect back at the camera. The handles are also metal but wrapped in paracord, adding some texture to the image.
  • Speedlights: I used five Speedlight in the example image, but if you have one knife, you can get away with two lights. For the three-knife setup, you need one Speedlight on the background, one over the top in a softbox, and one on each knife.
  • Softbox: The Speedlight over the top of the knives needs to be diffused so that you don’t get hard shadows. I used the 26-inch Westcott Rapid Box Octa because it is the perfect size to light up all three knives. If you want the knives spaced further apart, you will need a bigger softbox or a strip softbox so that all three are covered.
  • Boom or century stand: The overhead light needs to be placed above the knives and aimed down. To do this, you need a boom or a century stand to position the softbox.
  • Commander unit: You will need a way to trigger the light from the camera. I used the SU-800, but you can use another Speedlight.
  • Camera and lens: For this photo I used the Nikon D4 and a 70–200mm lens. You can use any lens that gives you the look you want. I wanted to shoot from further away to provide room to place the accent lights that illuminate the different blades, and the 200mm focal length allowed for this easily.
  • Tripod: The camera needs to be set in a tripod that can hold it while you set up and test the lights.
  • Justin clamps: These allow you to really fine-tune the exact placement of the Speedlights, which is what you need here. You can use the Justin clamps on light stands as I did or just pull up some chairs and clamp the lights to their backs.
  • Light stands: You need a light stand in the back to hold the background light and three light stands up front to hold each of the lights that create the reflections. If you use the Justin clamps, then you can use anything as a light stand; just clamp the lights to a chair back, for example.
  • Snoots: The light used to create the reflections in the blades needs to be tightly controlled so that it doesn’t spill over and light everything in the scene. You can use any snoots to do this; I used three of the Rogue FlashBenders rolled up as snoots.
  • Custom backdrop: The backdrop is a piece of paper that is made to look like wood. You can buy some great papers to use in product photos at any good art supply store.
  • Wood: I used a plain piece of scrap wood to hold the knives in place—simple and effective.
  • Rogue Grid: A Rogue Grid is used on the background light to control the spill of light.

Taking the Photo

Build the lighting for this photo from the back forward with the background light first, then the overhead light, and finally the three accent lights. For the example, I positioned the knives in the piece of wood point first and placed the wood on the work table. I then placed an SB-800 Speedlight on a low light stand and aimed it at the background. With a Rogue Grid over the flash head, the SB-800 was set to Remote mode, channel 1, and group C. For the background, I used a piece of art paper that was made to look like wood. You can see the setup in Figure 19.12. The goal is to create a bright spot in the middle of the background with the wood pattern at the edges. You can see the example image with only the background light firing in Figure 19.13.

Figure 19.12

Figure 19.12 The background light aims at the custom art paper.

Figure 19.13

Figure 19.13 The background light alone silhouettes the knives.

NIKON D4 ISO 400 1/100 SEC. F/9.0

The next step is to add the overhead main light. I used an SB-800 Speedlight in a Westcott Rapid Box Strip light placed overhead and to the rear of the knives. The Speedlight was set to Remote mode, channel 1, and group A. I wanted the overhead light to add some light to the whole scene and add some illumination to the top of the knives. The overhead light firing alone creates Figure 19.14.

Figure 19.14

Figure 19.14 In this test firing, the knives are lit by just the overhead softbox held in place with a century stand. The light is over and slightly to the rear of the knives.

NIKON D4 ISO 400 1/100 SEC. F/9.0

The most difficult part of this setup is aiming the three Speedlights used to illuminate the knife blades. For the example, each of these is set to Remote mode, channel 1, and group B. Because all these lights are in the same group, they will all have the same power and need to be roughly the same distance from the blades. Each of these Speedlights also needs a snoot over the end to control the spill of light. (I used a Rogue FlashBender.) To simplify positioning these lights, turn off two of the flashes and aim the first one, and when you have that flash aimed properly, repeat the same process for the other two lights. You can see the three speed lights in Figure 19.15 all aimed at the work area. Each of the Speedlights is in a Justin clamp and mounted on a light stand. Figure 19.16 shows how the individual lights look when fired separately.

Figure 19.15

Figure 19.15 The three accent lights need to be aimed individually. The three Speedlights used for the example shot are mounted in Justin clamps on light stands, and each has a Rogue FlashBender as a snoot.

NIKON D4 ISO 400 1/100 SEC. F/9.0

Figure 19.16

Figure 19.16 In these images, you can see how the individual lights each illuminate and reflect off of a different blade.

NIKON D4 ISO 400 1/100 SEC. F/9.0

The final step is to turn on all the lights and make sure everything still looks great. In Figure 19.17 you can see all three front lights are turned on, as well as the overhead light. All that is needed is to turn on the background light. The final settings for the images were Manual power at 1/8 for group A, Manual power at 1/64 for group B, and Manual power at 1/8 for group C (see Figure 19.18).

Figure 19.17

Figure 19.17 Test just the front lights and the overhead light.

NIKON D4 ISO 400 1/100 SEC. F/9.0

Figure 19.18

Figure 19.18 Here’s the final image of the knife set with all of the Speedlights firing.

NIKON D4 ISO 400 1/100 SEC. F/9.0

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