By Joan T. Sherwood
The Sharpics D-Flector and Compact Studio Light Kit combination gives you the bare basics to begin dabbling in product photography: white, black and reflective backgrounds in a standalone case and two tabletop lights with 30-watt fluorescent bulbs around 5,000K. You'll also need a tripod, light modifiers to tone down the hot spot of the lights, and a suitable lens. The products are economically priced, and the materials used and construction feel in line with the cost. The lights are extremely lightweight with two-section, mostly plastic stands. I wouldn't want to see what happens if you accidently hooked a cord and sent one skidding across the room.
The new version of the D-Flector uses a big cardboard portfolio design with a desktop photo frame style support in back. Each end of the case features a clamp in the center and clear plastic corner holders for the backgrounds. It seems durable enough for what you'll be using it for, but I really liked the wooden case design of the previous model.
My tests with the reflective background and a standard 18-55mm kit lens using the on-camera flash on my Nikon D40 were completely uninspired, so I moved on to more experimental modes. If you want the reflective background to create the "no background" effect that Sharpics boasts, you have to use a camera-to-subject angle of at least 30 degrees, and that's not always the best composition choice. I think it looks better to use the white background and appropriate exposure for a high-key backdrop.
Above, the exposure is f/5.6 at 1/125 second, ISO 200, using the Nikon D40's built-in flash. The suggested method to get a complete background dropout is to aim the camera and flash at at least a 30-degree angle. According to my tripod, I was at about 35 degrees for this shot. I didn't like how the reflection bounced up on the bulbs, and I had to spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect camera position for background dropout. I never quite found it.
What I really enjoyed about the tabletop studio was the way its simplicity and versatility inspired experimentation. I would have like to have tried the overhead boom light ($89.95, currently out of stock) and the light diffusers ($5.95 each), but not having them just made me try different things. Ideally, you'll want to use this in a room where you can block out any ambient light sources and have a large tabletop to work on.
First I printed out a new background from one of my travel shots and chose an appropriate subject to stand in front of it. That was definitely more fun. The light stands only extend from 12 to 18 inches, so you have to get creative to get some light control. I placed one lamp on the box that the pair came packed in, adding about 20 inches more height and approximating overhead light, and added a blue gel. I put a frosted diffusion gel on the other lamp and put it low and close to the camera position as a main light. To get that light low enough, I had to create another tier. The camera on a tripod and one lamp were on the floor; the D-Flector, background and subject were on low tabletop level, and the overhead lamp was on a box. An adequate workbench and the Sharpics Clamp-on Overhead Boom Light would solve most of the awkwardness I experienced with my initial setup.
Exposure: f/36 for 2.5 seconds, ISO 200. The background image was blurred before printing to appear out of focus. Image for review purposes only, ©Joan T. Sherwood; Godzilla TM & © Toho Co. Ltd.
In my next shoot I tried out the black and white backgrounds using the Lensbaby G3 and the +10 and +4 Macro Lens Kit. With diffusion gels on the fluorescent lamps, this worked like a charm, though the thin diffusion material couldn't overcome the hot spot of the light on highly reflective subjects. I found a better table to set up on this time, and I could even appreciate the lightweight aspect of the lamps when I wanted to just hold one in a near-camera-position while I waited for my camera timer to start the exposure.
Image ©Joan T. Sherwood
I was especially thankful for the comparatively low heat coming from the lamps. With my head practically stuck right beneath them most of the time, I was sweating moderately. I hate to think how hot that would get with something other than fluorescents. This way, I was able to leave the lights on continuously and didn't have to get up and down to turn on the room lights every time I wanted to try a new object or change something around. I could move lights while I looked through the viewfinder to see how the light changed.
Image ©Joan T. Sherwood
Finally, I took photos of Valentine's cards that a friend makes and sells online. For this I used the Nikon D300 and a 17-55mm f/2.8 lens. The vinyl background supplied with the D-Flector was too shiny for this purpose, so I used black Foamcore and mounted the camera on a horizontal tripod arm directly over the card. I wanted the lighting to be even with just a little direction to show off the 3-D features. Speed was also a factor. It took a few minutes to set the lights where I wanted them, and then less than 15 minutes to shoot 21 cards using manual focus and a 5-second timer to initiate exposure. The whole process was quick and easy, and my friend was very pleased with the results.
The vinyl is scratch resistent, but not invulnerable. Gritty unglazed clay on the bottom of some pottery work created the scratch you see on the bottom left corner.
Those prone to knocking together do-it-yourself substitutes could put together a tabletop studio kit more economically (minus the special reflective silver background, which I didn't find very useful anyway), but for something you can pull out of the box and use in a matter of minutes, the Sharpics D-Flector and Compact Studio Light Kit really fits the bill.
The D-Flector Portable Photo Studio comes in two sizes, 20 x 32 inches at $69.95 and 30 x 40 inches at $119.95. The Compact Studio Light Kit (two light stands, reflectors and bulbs) is $129.95. Complete Studio sets with tabletop monopod and variations in D-Flector size and lights included range from $239.95 to $374.95.