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The Power Of The Scrim In Still Life Photography Tips & Tricks

The Power Of The Scrim In Still Life Photography | Types, What To Buy, & How To Use

By Max Bridge on March 14th 2017

My apologies, this article will leave you reaching for your wallet. If you’re a still life photographer, however, it will be some of the best money you ever spend. Today, we’ll be discussing the use of scrims in still life photography and how you can use such a simple modifier to create amazing things.

Still Life Photography Is All About Control

Arguably, still life photography is the most technical type of photography there is. When compared with many other photographic disciplines, the level of detail necessary is astounding, and if shooting commercially, the client expects their product to be displayed in the best possible light. They need it to look good online, in print, on billboards, everywhere. They need it to sell their product in a unique and eye-catching manner and present it in a true-to-life way.

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As a result, you may not be surprised to hear that it is the most gear hungry genre. Oh, and if that weren’t enough, it’s the genre of photography which all those stupidly expensive items were built for. You know the ones you look at and go “why on earth would anyone spend that much money on that?!”. That’s right, all of a sudden you need those $30,000 lights and $40,000 cameras. Ok, maybe you don’t need them, but you can definitely make a very good case for purchasing them.

The Scrim Will Help You Become A Master Of Light

Still Life photography is so demanding as it requires an in-depth knowledge of, and ability to, manipulate light in every way possible, hence the need for so many different lighting modifiers, lights, cameras, and accessories. Even a seemingly simple image like the one above required a multitude of techniques to accomplish.

Oddly enough, when you ask multiple people what a scrim is, you may get multiple answers. I know them from my days in the film industry, in which sheets of fabric, varying in size from the gigantic to the very small, would be hung on frames and used to diffuse light. Some photographers call them GOBOs, some may say flags. Perhaps it’s a discrepancy in terminology, who knows. For our purposes today, scrims are any material which you place in front of a strobe with the purpose of diffusing the light. Scrims may be material stretched across frames, rolls of diffusion, sheets of acrylic or Depron (dense polystyrene).

How Can You Use A Scrim In Still Life Photography?

If you place a scrim in front of your light and then move that light forward and backward, you’ll decrease and increase the size of the light on the scrim. Imagine shining a torch (flashlight) against a wall, the further back you are the larger that light becomes. With this in mind, scrims will allow you to precisely control how soft or hard your light is. Place the light far away from your scrim and the light will be large and therefore soft, and vice versa.

The next use for a scrim is demonstrated above and below. Either by placing a small softbox or a reflector with some diffusion on your strobe, you can utilize a scrim to create double diffusion. In the behind-the-scenes photo of the wine bottle above, you’ll notice a strobe on the left of frame pointed into a scrim. The strobe has a reflector on the front and is placed at an angle to the scrim. The result of this is that not only do we have double diffusion, giving us very soft light, but we’ve also created a gradient on the scrim. That gradient appears in the reflective parts of the bottle.

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So, we can use scrims to create double diffusion, gradients on glossy surfaces and to precisely control the hardness of our strobes. In the photo above, one large roll of Lee 129 diffusion paper is placed behind our product coming slightly over the top. Another surface regularly used as a scrim, Opal Acrylic, has been placed underneath the product as the shooting table. These two scrims are then used to precisely control every reflective surface on the watch. If you were to directly light the watch without using scrims, you would not be able to create the gradients across the surface. Instead, you’d see nasty reflections of the light source.

Gear You’ll Want To Buy

Now it’s time to get your wallet out. As photography equipment goes, most of this is pretty cheap. It’s useful to own scrims of multiple sizes, ranging from the very small to the quite large. Ironically, the most expensive aspect is not the scrims themselves but clamps, extension arms, and C-Stands you need to mount them.
Roll of Lee 129, Heavy Frost – This is hard to find, I buy it from this company in Europe.

Savage Translum – I don’t have direct experience with this but I know many still life photographers use it. Buy it from B & H here.

Opal Acrylic – I buy this from a company in the UK, but I’m sure you can find it anywhere. It’s Perspex and allows roughly 30% light transmission while not effecting the color of the light. Find it in the UK here. The great thing about this is it comes in all size from a4 to anything you can afford. Buy a large 10mm thick sheet to use as a shooting table and purchase thinner versions to place around your set. As this is rigid, using the right clamps, it can easily be placed anywhere and at any angle.

Depron – This stuff is also hard to track down. It’s the same material used to create model planes, a sort of thick polystyrene. It comes in large sheets and can be cut down to absolutely any size you want. I purchase it from here.

Mounting Your scrims:

Westcott Fast Flag – Very useful frame which, when used in conjunction with a diffusion roll and some camera tape, can make an extremely flexible modifier. Find it here.

Extension arm & knuckle – This can be used with a roll of diffusion or, when used with another knuckle, to clamp acrylic or Depron sheets. Find one here and be sure to buy an extra knuckle.

Manfrotto Friction Arm – These things are magic. They can hold enough weight to place a small to large sheet of acrylic almost anywhere and can be clamped around your set on existing light stands; very useful for small places. Find the friction arm here and grab a couple extra super clamps here.

Summary | The Most Useful Still Life Modifier

An ability to control light is crucial to every genre of photography but the necessity for that control becomes especially apparent within still life. Once you begin using scrims in all their different forms you will never turn back. Mercifully, many of the items I have listed above are relatively inexpensive but their usefulness should not be underestimated.

I’d love to hear what your favorite modifiers are in the comments below.

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About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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  1. Gavin Wren

    Thanks for this article Max, it’s given me some really useful ideas for scrims and diffusers and opal acrylic is a great idea, Ive been battling with fabric which is quite hard to control around small, highly reflective products.

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