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Conquering the Glare of Stainless Steel Surfaces

Published: 22/04/2019

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Lane, from Topeka, KS writes:

It doesn’t seem to matter how hard I try to get it right, my kitchen shots get killed by bright reflections and glare coming off of stainless steel appliances. This gets really bad with the fridge, which ends up looking like a circus mirror! What can I do?

There’s no doubt about it, Lane; stainless steel appliances can be a challenge, to put it politely! Even black stainless steel can have a dazzling light and of course, it needs regular cleaning just like any other material. More often than not in real estate photography, I can rely on quick fixes for certain reflections. For example, if you’ve got a reflection on the glass of a framed print, then use the trick that many of us have learned from Scott Hargis' book and video: roll-up a little bit of paper towel and place it behind the frame, so as to change the angle of the glass and thus, the reflection. However, stainless steel is a completely different animal!

Most metals that people have some level of familiarity with--like cast iron, aluminum, copper, etc.--tend to have oxide coatings that are great at absorbing light and thus have what metallurgists refer to as “low solar reflectivity.” Stainless steel, on the other hand, doesn’t behave like these common metals, in that it has a very high solar reflectivity. To make things worse, there’s something about the finish of stainless steel fridges that makes it seem like reflections come off them with no rhyme-or-reason. So much so, that even if you place a flash at an oblique angle to the appliance, it may bounce at a very sharp angle back at your camera. This often results in those long, vertical, bright white streaks of light that draw the viewer’s attention to the appliance, rather than to the rest of the scene. And don’t get me started about what happens when there’s a large window in the vicinity!

The most effective way to deal with bright reflections off of stainless steel is to take advantage of as much ambient light as possible. If more light is needed, then a ceiling bounce with the flash angled slightly away from the appliance(s) will help. Regardless, the odds are that the appliance(s) will still require some time in post. There are a number of ways to do this. One of my favorite ways is to make a really thorough selection around the appliance and, using a paintbrush tool that's set to Darken mode, I sample a shade of gray that is situated very close to the bright reflection. I then paint in the entire appliance. From there, I simply reduce the opacity slider for that layer to taste (for my eye, this usually ends up in the 20-35% range.) Personally, I don't like the idea of completely taking away the glare because in an odd way, that brightness adds some dimensionality that just "looks real." Keep in mind that whenever you paint, in Photoshop, it’s wise to add some "noise" to make the appliance look just a bit more realistic (i.e., Edit > Noise > Add Noise… then add 0.5-2.0% to taste.) If you'd rather deal with it on site, you can use a scrim of some sort to block the light source that is causing the offensive "light streak" on the appliance. Setting your camera to a 10-second delay will allow you the time to get to your camera and position the scrim appropriately, before the camera trigger is released. When you get home, simply use the fridge in that scrimmed capture to just brush in to your base exposure.

I’d imagine that there are many more ways to address bright, hot-spots coming off of stainless steel. So if you’ve got ‘em, I’m sure Lane would welcome your ideas in the comments section!

Tony Colangelo

3 comments on “Conquering the Glare of Stainless Steel Surfaces”

  1. That’s one of the reasons I don’t use flash, there are enough reflections without adding more. But I always carry a can of dulling spray for horrific reflections. That’s a compromise too since it tends to make the surface look dull, what a surprise! But in extremis it can be a life saver. A polarizing filter can also help but it can knock a couple of stops off your exposure. This is where the much maligned HDR can help. I say “can” since there will always be reflections. But HDR can reduce burn out highlights as well as fill in shadows even when you pop a flash into the mix as well. Personally I avoid flash like the plague unless I have a situation that really demands it. But I prefer to use continuous LED instead of flash since you can see what you are getting in real time. We Crendo I end up with all of the above. But good to have plenty of tools in your tool kit.

  2. Most homes I do and most clients I serve, there isn't a lot of fuss about getting the perfect satin finish on stainless appliances. When it is a factor, I use my biggest pop-out reflector (5 in 1) to flag or modify the light. Sometimes it's a combination of flagging (blocking) a light source I don't want such as the sun and using an ambient exposure or bounced flash to get the level I need to layer in the appliance in Photoshop. I don't go for a completely satin finish since I feel it look too fake, so my soft light layer's opacity is varied to let a little bit of the highlights show through. It's always a good idea to work with all of the home's lighting off so conquering extreme highlights on stainless isn't something that you can do very well with a HDR workflow.

    Another technique is to add diffusion to the home's windows to get a very soft ambient light and then remove the scrimming to make frames for the windows with something like a Darken Mode Window Pull technique. The question becomes how big a budget the client has, how much time you have to spend and how perfect the images have to be for the usage. The most complex I have gone is my biggest pop-out reflector (30"x40" or something close to that). It's pretty quick. I haven't used it since I got my Camranger, but being able to move the reflector/flag/diffusion around and see what the camera is seeing should make it really fast.

  3. My tried and true: knock down the ambient a stop or two (in camera) until the offending ugly reflection is gone. Bounce a light (bright!) off the ceiling or a white reflector on the opposite side of the stainless. That'll give you a nice clean reflection. Mask it in. And the good thing about stainless is you don't have to be perfect with your mask, just feather it by a few pixels. Super quick and easy.

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