How to use mirrors to get perfect axial lighting on macro subjects

Feb 13, 2018

John Aldred

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.

How to use mirrors to get perfect axial lighting on macro subjects

Feb 13, 2018

John Aldred

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.

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They often say that photography is all just smoke and mirrors. And, in this case, they’re half right. Mirror-like reflections certainly are involved. This is lighting setup that never would’ve occurred to me had I not stumbled across it on a friend’s Facebook post. UK based photographer Dougie Smith typically brings people into his studio, but he also shoots photographs for Chards, a dealer of rare and collectable coins.

Dougie’s been a friend of mine for years, so when I saw him post a couple of setup shots to his Facebook profile, I had to send him a message asking if I could share them here with you guys. He and Chards agreed, so here we are. It’s a fascinating setup called axial lighting, and it overcomes some of the problems you see with typical macro ringflash setups.

The setup itself is quite simple. You shine a light from the side, and a piece of glass or 2-way mirror at 45° reflects it down onto the subject. Then you place the camera directly overhead of the subject, looking through the glass. Finally, there’s a black cloth on the opposite side of the subject to the light to prevent it from reflecting back up into the camera’s lens.

So, in the above image, you can see how it works. The solid white line is the straight white light coming out of the lens. Where it turns into the dashed yellow line, it enters the mirror holder and reflects straight down at 90° to light up whatever’s laying flat on the surface. The dashed grey line is any light that escaped through the glass and carried on in a straight line. This is soaked up by the black cloth. The blue dashed line pointing straight down is the view of the camera’s lens.

It’s a very cool setup that there’s no other way to achieve. It allows you to get complete axial coverage with light appearing to come from the actual lens itself. Impossible to achieve with a ringflash, as you always get that dark hole in the middle where the lens sits. Depending on your subject, you might not see the reflection, but with shiny objects like coins, you most certainly do.

In order to make sure that all the light on the coin is coming from above, the coin is placed inside a small cylinder. This prevents it from being hit by direct light from the side. The results are absolutely spectacular using just this one light in a reflector from the side, flagged off by barn doors.

 

About the process, Doug told me some of the principles of how the system works, as well as technical issues you have to think about for this sort of setup.

Axial lighting is a term used to illuminate the subject through the lens.

The light source comes parallel to the surface the subject  rests on and is pointed directly to a sheet of 3mm glass placed at an angle of 45 degrees. Some of the light is reflected downwards and provides perfect, even, overhead lighting of it.

Some of the light will pass through and it’s important to have something black (or dark) to absorb the light to stop it reflecting back which would then get passed upwards and cause lens flare.

It’s such an obvious solution when it’s explained, that it’s amazing more people don’t do it. As well as coins it could be perfect for bugs or any manner of other macro subjects.

Important here is the Canon 100mm 2.8 macro lens which gives more room to work with – there is room to place the glass over the subject but under the lens. We couldn’t do this with a supermacro lens like the 65mm.

For Nikon shooters, the 105mm f/2.8VR or even 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor lenses should work equally as well. They both allow for plenty of working distance between the subject and lens to place the glass.

For actually setting the glass, there are a number of ways you can do it. Here, Dougie uses standard 3mm thick window glass. The edges are taped to aid handling. There are many ways you could support it from custom-made supports, such as Dougie’s done with his laser cutter, to simple cardboard and gaffer tape or even holding it by hand.

Dougie also told us a little more about the light and modifiers he uses.

Different effects can be achieved with different modifiers. Our preferred choice is barn doors with a grid fitted. This keeps the light parallel and shows up more contrast. It also shows metal objects more as they appear to be if we were holding them. Notice how the silver field (background surface of the coin design) shows the reflections and slight dimples of the metal.

Using a softbox gives a wider field of light and gives a more illustrated result.

As you can see, the look is very different, but also very pleasing with none of the issues you’d see from using a ringflash.

Dougie says the idea for this setup came to him thanks to Gale Spring, Adjunct Associate Professor of Scientific Photography at RMIT University in Melbourne. Gale posted a video of his process, which explains exactly how the principle works, how to implement it, and other issues that come up. Gale also talks about why ringflashes are often not a great alternative.

YouTube video

It’s a really interesting technique, and not one I can see myself using often, but one I definitely plan to have a go with at some point for some macro work with bugs. And it sure does make those coins look shiny!

Many thanks to both Dougie Smith for talking to us about his work, and to Chards for allowing us to share the behind the scenes images.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

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.

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22 responses to “How to use mirrors to get perfect axial lighting on macro subjects”

  1. Shachar Weis Avatar
    Shachar Weis

    Neat!

  2. Galonii August Avatar
    Galonii August

    wouldn’t it be a better, sharper photo if there wasn’t glass between the camera lens and the subject?

    1. Jurek Siminski Avatar
      Jurek Siminski

      Yep, it surprised me as well ?

    2. Galonii August Avatar
      Galonii August

      I mean we pay thousands of dollars for great glass in our lenses and here they’re using what looks like cheap glass between your subject and lens. it’s like paying 1200 for a lens and buying the cheapest uv filter you can get….

      1. epatsellis Avatar
        epatsellis

        Well, if it makes you feel better, 25 years ago I paid around $650 for a Sinar semi silvered mirror that mounts to any Sinar standard, used for exactly the same thing. Not a new idea, but us old time studio shooters kept a lot of the secrets to ourselves.

        1. gly Avatar
          gly

          Hi, It sounds like you have much more experience with this than most. I hope maybe you can answer a question for me. :o) The glass sheet at 45 degrees to the lens is thinner at its closest point between the lens and the sheet of glass and thicker at the furthest point. Does this not cause a gradual falloff of focus in the image? If this is true, how do you over come the falloff? Thanks!

          1. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
            Kay O. Sweaver

            The glass isn’t reflecting the image, its reflecting the light. Even if it were reflecting, the angle doesn’t matter because the distance each light beam travels is the same, those that travel further to reach the mirror travel less distance to reach the lens.

      2. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
        Kay O. Sweaver

        The glass is well beyond the focus plane, so it really doesn’t matter that much. You can shoot through the window of a house or a car no problem. Distortion is really minimal. Hell, you can have potato chip crumbs on the front of your lens and unless you’re really stopped down probably won’t notice much.

      3. Dougie Smith Avatar
        Dougie Smith

        Sorry – only just found these comments – but I’ll reply anyway a year later :). Yes, the glass used was particularly dusty that day – I should have cleaned it BUT (as mentioned down there ↓↓↓) it doesn’t make a huge difference. Same as dust on outside of lens won’t show up much unlike dust bunnies on your sensor will. The camera is focused on the subject – a good few inches below the glass. Hope that explains it more.

    3. Richard Tack Avatar
      Richard Tack

      It’s a flat piece of glass. The images are quite sharp. Sharp enough to sell the coins, obviously. They are not making 30 x 30 inch prints for NASA.

    4. Michele M. Ferrario Avatar
      Michele M. Ferrario

      *cof* *cof* the “glass” was the mirror

    5. Galonii August Avatar
      Galonii August

      It really looks like cloudy glass lol

    6. Fernando Adrian Avatar
      Fernando Adrian

      it is absolutely necessary to do the trick

  3. JP Danko Avatar
    JP Danko

    Super cool!

  4. Adrian Thomson Avatar
    Adrian Thomson

    This is standard practise, I learned it at college decades ago.

  5. Marko Avatar
    Marko

    What a great light setting.

  6. gly Avatar
    gly

    This is very cool and I might try this, but there’s a question I hope someone can answer. The glass sheet at 45 degrees to the lens is thinner at its closest point between the lens and the sheet of glass and thicker at the furthest point. Does this not cause a gradual falloff of focus in the image?

  7. Theodore Merklin Avatar
    Theodore Merklin

    Very cool problem solving here. Any idea what copy stand he’s using for this set up? Looks pretty robust. So far I only use the cantilevered arm from my tripod for macro shots like this…

  8. Doug Sundseth Avatar
    Doug Sundseth

    Interesting variant of the teleprompter. I’m not sure when I’ll use this, but I’m pretty sure that I _will_ use it at some point.

  9. Jerry Goffe Avatar
    Jerry Goffe

    We, in forensic photography, have been using this technique for years. Our adapters are the same but opposite … that is they include to black background and attach to the lens. Well written. Thanks.

  10. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
    Kay O. Sweaver

    This is how they did the glowing eye effect in the original Blade Runner.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDkFncZG3yE

  11. leorosasphoto Avatar
    leorosasphoto

    Thanks Dougie for creating this video and John for posting it to the community :) very cool!