How to light real world objects with “flat design” style drop shadows
The “flat design” style drop shadows seem to have become a big thing lately. Whenever I check out my YouTube feed, I always seem to see a new tutorial on how to do it in Photoshop, Illustrator or After Effects. It’s easy to see why. It’s a pleasing look. It complements a flat design with a sense of realism, depth and context. This is the first time, though, that I’ve seen it done for real, with actual objects.
In this video from the Cinematography Database, Matt Workman teams up with Greg from Lens Pro To Go to show us how it’s done. Starting off with a simple overhead setup, they take us through the entire process. They break the process down into individual steps and build it up one light at a time. This lets you see exactly how each light is contributing to the scene.
It’s a useful technique for overhead lighting, but it may require a fairly large space to get a good even spread of light and prevent rapid falloff. How much space will depend on the size of the object you’re shooting. But, you don’t want one corner of your shot blowing out while the other’s underexposed, so it’s something to take into account.
The first task in this setup is to get the overhead camera rig set up. There are many different ways you can do this, so I’ll leave that up to you. In this video, Matt and Greg used a set of Manfrotto 536 legs with a Kesler Pocket Jib and Manfrotto 502 video head. At the top, they mounted a Canon C100 with Xeen lenses.
Next comes the lighting. Two lights point toward a reflector above which provides a nice soft ambient fill. The barn doors prevent light from spilling directly onto the table.
The key light is a high overhead bare bulb light (you can see now why I said you might need some space). This small sized light source replicates sunlight and creates the hard edged shadow on the “table” surface.
Beyond this, mixing up the lighting with some coloured gels can add interest to a shot. The same gel colours may not always work for all subjects, but it’s an interesting idea to explore. Depending on the lights you’re using, you might not even need the gels if you can adjust the colour temperature in the lights themselves. Gels and adjusting the white balance also produce a more realistic result (because it is real) than toning in post.
It’s interesting to see the comparisons of each light in the setup and how each contributes to the shot. Figuring out exactly how each light contributes can be difficult for new photographers. So, this breakdown is very handy.
It’s an effective setup, and there’s nothing to stop you taking things even further. You could add more lights to the product itself to help highlight surface texture or shape.
You can easily translate this technique over to stills using either continuous lights or flash. If you are shooting stills, you could even take two separate shots with different lighting setups. One for the low level fill & shadow, and a second lighting setup for highlighting the features & form product. Then, blend in post.
Have you used flat design style drop shadows for your product photography? Is it a look you like with real world objects? Or should it just be used with flat design graphics? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.