Tabletop photography works well with flashes, but continuous light may be your best friend these days. LED panels are the obvious choice too, for multiple reasons, and within them the Lykos BiColor from Manfrotto may be the wise choice.
Tabletop photography is an ongoing experience that can consume hours of your time. I write this from experience, as a whole universe of adventures can happen on a tabletop, once you start to play with objects and lights. Or should I say light?
Yes, let’s keep things simple, and advance for this introduction to tabletop photography with a single light. After all, many masters of photography use only one light. Many photographers, from Annie Leibovitz to Zack Arias, use one light in some of their setups, even if they can afford to have multiple lights. Especially when starting, many photographers only use one light, both because it is cheaper and easier to control. Some grow so attached to that one light technique that it becomes their trademark. So, here, we will use one single light.
If you’ve browsed through the text and looked at the images you’ve already understood that there is a lot one can do with a single light… and here we are only touching the surface of what’s possible to do and not exploring all the subjects you can photograph with a single light. In fact, we’re centered on tabletop photography, with suggestions for some activities that will give you a better grasp of the magic a single light can do for you.
A LED light named… wolf
The single light chosen for this article is the Lykos BiColour from Manfrotto, a LED panel launched early 2016, offering an output of 1600lux. There is also a Lykos Daylight version, calibrated for 5600K, but for this article I opted for the Lykos BiColour, which has the option to change colour temperature from warm white (3000K) to cold white (5600K). There is a difference in price and you may want to go for the Daylight version, which costs a bit less, but I find advantages on the BiColor, because I tend to forget the temperature conversion filters that come with the daylight only versions, and with this one, I only need to adjust the colour, using the color LCD display on the back of the unit to monitor all the functions, from output to colour balance. One note before we continue: Lykos is the Greek word for wolf.
Although most times I will use the Lykos BiColor on the daylight setting, it’s good to have the option to adjust colour if you need/want to. The Lykos BiColor is a professional light, offering long LED life, energy efficiency, consistent colour reproduction and flicker-free functionality. Designed with a handle that makes it easy to hold it when in use, it includes a ball head, ideal for mounting it on a support, for tabletop photography. A small tripod like the Pixi Mini Tripod may be enough, depending on your subjects and how high you need your light. I tend to use a Spring Clamp with Flash Hot-shoe because I find it can be used for different things. It’s not the most stable support, as it is not meant to be used that way, but it works well if you do not knock it down.
Other LED lights to consider
Manfrotto has more LED panels, and I also use the original Spectra LED panels, ideal for taking around with you, as they use six AA batteries or, optionally, a mains adapter which is an extra accessory. The Lykos BiColor is different, though, as it comes with its own mains adapter and cables to use it in different countries. It’s a nice touch and a welcome alternative energy source if working inside.
For tabletop photography I suggest the use of the mains adapter, as it allows you to not have to worry about batteries. But the Lykos BiColor also uses L-Type Li-ion batteries, and I would advise you to buy one – and a charger – for those moments when you need to free the LED panel from the energy cable. It gives you the best of both worlds in a Manfrotto LED panel that is “Powered by Litepanels” and that offers lights as bright as the legacy Litepanels 1×1 and half the size. The compact Lykos Bicolour, achieves that through the use of surface mounted technology, and the use of special dedicated lenses which are super-efficient.
Note for editors: Photo lykostabletop002_JA goes somewhere around here
The Likos series allows users to control the light remotely, through a Bluetooth dongle that transforms the LED panel in a smart device you can control for one app in your smartphone. It’s not something I use, but it is a welcome feature if you need to place your lights away from you and still want to be able to adjust dimming, colour temperature or simply switch the light on/off. The app also allows grouping lights and recall previous stored scene settings and other features.
Softening the Lykos light
A gel diffuser included with the Lykos BiColor is something I will use most of the time, as it helps to soften the light. There is a Manfrotto Lykos Softbox, which is an optional accessory, to create soft lighting, softening shadows in the images. According to the information available, the softbox can be set up in seconds without any tools and the diffuser film is specifically designed for LED Lighting and reduces the light output by 1,3 f-stops.
While I think a softbox is a welcome addition to your Lykos kit if you use it on the move, I’ve created my own “softbox” for tabletop photography using one piece of equipment I already mentioned in my previous article, “The adventure starts home”: a Lastolite Collapsible Diffuser 50cm 2 Stop. I use another Spring Clamp with Flash Hot-shoe or any kind of clamp that works, to keep the diffuser in front of the Lykos BiColor LED panel, in order to soften the light as needed.
For this article I photographed six different objects, all photographed with the equipment and accessories indicated in the recipe. Although some are very similar, there are subtle differences between them, that I want to explore and explain. The examples here are just a few of many “tabletop” experiences you can try. Some of the images published here suggest other setups you can try, and my previous article, “The adventure starts home” also shows images that are related to tabletop photography. In fact, almost everything can be photographed over a table, even flowers, if you want to. The potential is endless.
In terms of space, a medium-sized table with enough room for you to move away from it is ideal, especially if you like to use, as I do, the long end of a telephoto zoom. When it comes to tables, if you’ve a spare one that you can use as a permanent “studio” you’re in heaven; because you’re not using daylight, projects can last for hours and sometimes extend for more than one day.
Project 1: African Figurine
African figurines are interesting photographic elements, but almost all figurines give excellent photographic subjects. The background can be a sheet of paper or cardboard. I use a tabletop studio from Modahaus, with different polymer backdrops that are easy to clean and last for ages.
The first image of the figurine was shot with the Lykos Bicolor light positioned to backlit the figurine. To find the adequate exposure for the shot I used the Ezybalance 30cm 18% Grey/White, one of the special ingredients for this recipe. The white surface allowed me to bounce some of the light coming from the Lykos Bicolor back to the figurine, to show the drawings on the metal.
The third image, with white/grey background, was created by placing an acrylic sheet over two carboard boxes, the Modahaus studio over it, with the figurine. A white background from the Modahaus set was then placed over the figurine (see image), so as to create a light tent. The LED Light LYKOS ByColour was placed under the acrylic, for this result.
Project 2: The necklace
The necklace photograph relies both on colour and the detail to grab attention. There is one more element that I use a lot in my tabletop photography: a large mirror. It’s a very efficient solution for jewelry, but I’ve also used it for things like fruits (strawberries with a blue background, for example…). A red background was placed so it reflects in the mirror, and the LED Light LYKOS ByColour light comes from the left, with a touch of fill-in light produced by the white side of the Ezybalance 30cm 18% Grey/White.
Project 3: Variations on a Moroccan jewelry box
The Moroccan jewelry box was photographed in a fashion similar to the necklace above. The same light, this time with a black background, and again using the Ezybalance 30cm 18% Grey/White. This series of images was created to demonstrate why I chose the smallest Ezybalance, with a 30cm diameter: it is easily foldable so as to direct light to specific areas of the subject. The top image shows the light from the LED Light LYKOS ByColour, the three images under it show some of the multiple variations it is possible to obtain simply folding and moving the Ezybalance.
Project 4: Wine bottles
Photographing bottles is always difficult, mostly because of the reflections. This is a time when using a long lens and moving some distance starts to make things easier. Eventual reflections of the camera are gone. True, for these examples, which are mostly dark, the problem was how to control the light, and get good results with a single LED Light LYKOS ByColour.
The two images published show the same bottle photographed with and without revealing the right side. I placed the light on the left side, and this time, because I wanted it to be as soft as possible, I used the Lastolite Collapsible Diffuser 50cm 2 Stop in front of it, besides the gel diffuser already placed over the LED Light LYKOS ByColour. I find this works fine and the results achieved here confirm it.
The setup used reveals how this was created: a white background with a strip of black polymer, from Modahaus, create the base for the shot. The introduction of a black cardboard on the second image, makes the white line on the right side of the bottle disappear, as if my magic.
Project 5: More wine bottles
The two final images of wine bottles represent different takes for different needs. The first image shows how to photograph a wine bottle with a visible label. The setup is similar to the previous shot, but the Ezybalance 30cm 18% Grey/White was used to redirect the light from the LED Light LYKOS ByColour back to the label. The final shot illustrates how a single shot of one bottle of wine can be used, during post-processing, to create one image that grabs attention. It’s a reminder of how important it is to know the tools to use to take your initial images from the studio to the final projects in your computer.
Recipe for “There is a lot to like on the Lykos”
- A camera with manual control
- For tabletop photography a 18-135mm lens may be all you need. While you may consider macro or close-up as options, much of my tabletop photography is created at the long end of a telephoto lens.
- A table, for tabletop photography. If you can create a permanent workspace, it will be easier to explore projects that take a longer time.
- Cardboard sheets, both black and white, to use as light absorbers, gobos or reflectors.Translucent acrylic white sheet, polymer colour backgrounds (see text)
- Clamps, for keeping everything in place. Check the Spring Clamp with Flash Hot-shoe I use, as a suggestion.
- A LED light or panel is your best friend for most of your tabletop photography, as it offers you continuous light, allowing for an easier adjustment of your composition. A LED panel also gives you light to work even when the sun is gone, meaning tabletop fun can be experienced any time you want. A good and simple LED panel is balanced either for daylight or tungsten. A LED Light SPECTRA2 is a good starting point. If you want something more sophisticated, then the LED Light LYKOS ByColour is the obvious choice. A LED light is enough to start, you can always buy some more if needed.
- A Lastolite Collapsible Diffuser 50cm 2 Stop, which is a diffuser, but, obviously, also works as a reflector. Used with a LED panel, it gives you the fill-in light, if needed, from the opposite side, hence the reason why I suggest that one LED light is enough. Used over a window, the diffuser softens the light from the Sun. My choice of a 50cm size is simple: it is easy to handle and is enough to soften the light coming through a window, for most portraiture work, while also being a manageable size for tabletop. My idea of “less gear more fun” applies here. I know there are some reflectors/diffusers with multiple surfaces, but I want to keep it simple here.
- An Ezybalance 30cm 18% Grey/White, which has a triple function: it is used to adjust white balance, gives you an idea about exposure, and acts as a small reflector. There are three sizes available, 30, 50 and 75cm, and while you may think that bigger if better, I very much like the smallest of them for tabletop photography, as it allows me to use it as a “foldable reflector” to place light exactly where I want it. See the examples of use above.
- A tripod, an essential tool for tabletop photography. A tripod like the BeFree One Aluminium Travel Tripod with Head, may be enough, but if you want something larger, check the 290 Light Alu 3-Section Tripod Kit with 494RC2 Ball Head.