TRG Reality: How to Photograph Chrome

What is chrome? What should it look like in a photo? Holy mackerel, you might as well ask the meaning of life because it might be easier to explain!

Let’s start at the beginning. Merriam-Webster defines chrome as:

a : chromium

b : a chromium pigment

c : something plated with an alloy of chromium

Well, that wasn’t too helpful, was it? Where's Siri when you need her? Chromium is a blue-white metallic element found naturally only in combination, and used mostly in alloys and electroplating. Still clueless? Well, let’s walk through this together.

When you walk into a room and see an object you suspect is chrome, how do you know it’s chrome? What properties does that object have that make you think it’s chrome?

It’s reflective, right? That’s the answer I was fishing for with those questions. Chrome reflects everything and anything around it. If it's a straight chrome object, it's like a mirror. If it's curved, it bends and stretches the reflections of all the objects around it.

Light reflects harshly in chrome. If the chrome is next to a pink wall, it’s a safe bet that the chrome will appear pink as well. Chrome is like the tofu of the alloy metal world; it takes on the characteristics of what’s around it.

Now that we've established how reflective chrome is in the natural world, let's explore what chrome would look like in a vacuum. A true vacuum would be completely devoid of light. The lack of all light/color is black, and black reflected into a mirror is also black. Are you following me? So, if we have this shiny little chrome doohickey in an evenly lit white vacuum, it would reflect white and nothing else.

Much like tofurkey to real turkey, it appears white instead of reflective.

Now, if you remove one side of the vacuum, then the chrome would reflect white on three sides and black on the fourth.

This is how we, as photographers, can manipulate lighting to show chrome’s best feature, which tends to be its shape.

Lets just say, for the sake of me making my point, that this little chrome doohickey is cylindrical. We've pulled light away from one of three sides, so the remaining two sides are white. Now, if we swing our light all the way around our cylindrical object to the opposite side, it creates a gradient affect (the object is super bright white on one edge, which fades to dark grey and then, finally, black).

The gradient effect I am describing is what indicates the object is shiny and reflective.

It's these dramatic variations in tone that help make the chrome look like chrome when photographed, but the true telltale sign is the presence of black. It’s that reflection of nothing that really indicates the object is reflective. Our minds know looking at this cylindrical doohickey that the front left side still exists, even though it’s black, so our highly intelligent brains realize that the product is reflective.

In a light vacuum, it's easy to manipulate the lights, gradients, and blacks in a way to best show off the shape and features of the chrome piece. Now, if we know how to make pretty chrome in a vacuum, can't we just plop that product into a set and call it a day? Unfortunately not. Think back to the tofu. When we throw a perfectly lit and reflected chrome piece into a set, it's going to look very very foreign because our brains are telling us that it should be reflecting everything around it.

This can easily become the most subjective part of any photo shoot ever. How much to cheat back and forth so the chrome A) doesn't become a distraction due to everything else it's reflecting and B) doesn't become too fake looking, making it an obvious Photoshop job. True reflection is bad, but controlled reflection is a thing of beauty. We shoot the reflective chrome object with its original reflections, then add gradients through fill cards and lights to block out the distracting reflections and save the reflections that really work. In the end, we generally have a file with about 10 Photoshop layers, each carefully crafting highlights, black areas lacking reflection, and the original reflection.

When all else fails, though, always remember that the lack of a reflection next to an actual reflection always indicates an object’s reflectiveness.

Have you ever photographed chrome? What challenges did you come across? We’d love to hear more about it in the comments below.