There are three basic types of surfaces, as far as lighting is concerned: reflective, transparent, and neutral. In this video, you’ll learn about the 3 basic techniques for properly lighting each of these—in other words: the 3 techniques for lighting … everything.
This educational breakdown was created by the YouTube channel KINETEK, and it’s one of the most basic and useful lighting breakdowns we’ve seen online. Rather than focusing on a specific lighting technique for portraits, or products, or whatnot, it strips the concept even further into surfaces and how to light them.
Reflective surfaces are lit one way, transparent surfaces another, and neutral surfaces yet another way.
When you shine a light directly on a reflective surface, an incident light meter will tell you it’s well-lit… but your eyes will disagree. That’s because the light is (duh) reflecting off the surface elsewhere, leaving the actual surface close to unlit, depending on how reflective it is.
Technique One: Light a reflective surface by lighting the reflected area.
Many transparent surfaces—a bottle, for instance—are also reflective, so you’ll need to utilize the technique above for them as well. But if you JUST light the reflected area, you’ll still fall short of properly lighting a transparent/reflective object like a glass bottle.
Lighting the bottle itself will also not produce the desired results, because it’ll just pass right through… hence “transparent.”
Technique Two: Light a transparent surface by lighting what is seen through the object.
No need to dive too deep into this one. Neutral subjects are anything that isn’t transparent or reflective—a face, for example, or a chair.
Technique Three: To light a neutral subject, just… light it. Ambient light will neither reflect off of, nor pass through, this type of subject.
Keep in mind that most objects you photograph will be a combination of reflective, neutral, and transparent parts that all have to be lit using the techniques above. A clear bottle with a distinct label, for example, contains all three, and a great product photographer will use every tool in their highlight all three parts.
(via ISO 1200)