How to Photograph Knives

As the embers die down in the forge, the sparks stop flying off the grinder, the handle shaped and the sheath stitched, there is one step left in the process of knifekmaking:

Take the photograph that will provide a lasting memory of your hard work long after the knife has passed on to that special family member, neighbour or loyal customer.

Photographing knives poses a special problem in the art of photography – how do you capture the fine detail of that textured handle while wanting to show the blade as a flawless flat finish? And just how do you take a picture of a blade without showing yourself as a reflection in the mirror finish?

As with most things in life, it’s a combination of common sense and a trick of the trade. The common sense part is to minimise unwanted reflections by choosing the correct level of lighting and letting the right lighting angles and camera position.

Lighting levels

Today, both digital and SLR cameras are wonders of modern technology. Flash units can capture a wide variety of subjects. However, they are a one-size-fits-all device and can’t be expected to be able to perfectly illuminate a knife which is made up of very different reflective materials. Consider using flash cables to move the flash away from the camera to get varying light levels and angles. Use multiple cables and multiple flash units to remove shadows and add “depth”. If your camera can’t use flash cables, try setting up some lamps in different positions.

Lighting angle

We are all familiar with the dreaded red-eye that appears in most family and party photos. This occurs when the light from the flash gun mounted directly beside the camera lens bounces off the (red) retina at the back of the eye and fires straight back down the lens. Similarly, if you photograph a flat blade with the flash next to the lens, you will get a bright flare bouncing back down the lens. In both of these cases the problem can be solved in one of two ways:

  1. moving the flash further away from the camera, or
  2. angle the subject (eyes or blade) away from the lens.


Camera position

Try to avoid the “mugshot” style photo of your work by trying different angles e.g. - blade pointing towards/away from the camera; slightly lifting the edge up to or away from the camera, view from above etc. As you move the piece around you will see different highlights picked up by different parts of the knife and the knife will exhibit a different character when viewed from varying angles.


The trick of the trade

Professional studio photographers use a device called a light tent to photograph highly reflective items – look closely at that shiny toaster in your next variety store catalogue and you will see the distinctive lighting pattern. A light tent is simply a frame with translucent walls that surrounds the knife and allows light from outside the box to be diffused through the walls and evenly illuminate the knife.

To make one follow these steps:

  1. Build a cube shape frame (large enough to hold your knife) out of wooden rod or pvc pipe
  2. Wrap the sides, top, front and back (not bottom) in tracing paper or thin white cloth
  3. Cut a port in the front panel to allow the camera to look into the box
  4. Put your knife on a separate sheet of the tracing paper ( elevate the knife off the paper a little)
  5. Put the light tent over the knife
  6. Setup one light outside the box on one side
  7. Setup a second light on the opposite side
  8. Start shooting!

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