How I Got That Shot: Christine Blackburne ‘Nails’ a Reflective Still Life

September 14, 2015

By Interview Holly Stuart Hughes

Client: Nail It!

Beauty Director: Karie Frost

Still-life photographer Christine Blackburne says art directors and beauty editors often come to her with great concepts, then ask her to figure out how to make them work photographically. “I love solving these technical challenges. It’s fun for me,” says Blackburne, whose clients include e.l.f. Cosmetics, Harper Collins, Essence, People en Espanol, Marriott and Hublot. “I think they come to me for how I shape light and how I incorporate color and light.”

Karie Frost, beauty editor at Nail It! magazine, has been a frequent client; she first received one of Blackburne’s first promos seven years ago, and held onto it until she was at a job where she could call on the photographer’s technical and art directing skills. For a story about silver and gold nail polish trends, Frost brought Blackburne an idea to photograph a model’s manicured hand against shiny, metallic backgrounds, such as silver Mylar and a tray of reflective gold Pachinko balls. She wanted to capture the texture of the backgrounds, but keep the focus on the gleaming fingernails. 

Blackburne notes, “The challenge for this image was keeping it from getting too busy, with all the texture created by the Pachinko balls, and keeping the camera far enough away…so it would not be reflected in each one.” Having a hand model in the shot added a lighting challenge: She would need to make the model’s skin look good while also making the shiny elements of the shot stand out. When she lights jewelry, such as the bracelets on the hand model’s wrist, “It takes a lot more contrast to make them look nice,” she says. “But if there’s too much contrast in the hand, it can get creepy-looking fast.” 

Blackburne typically shoots in her 1,000-square-foot studio, located in South Street Seaport, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. Blackburne often uses the studio’s white walls and 15-foot high ceilings to bounce light around when she’s shooting tabletop compositions. Having her own studio with 24-hour access allows her to experiment whenever she wants. “I’ll come in the day before the shoot and play around with the objects to wrap my head around what we’re going to do on the shoot day,” she says. “I don’t want there to be any surprises on set with a client.”


Blackburne decided to pour the Pachinko balls onto a sheet of gold Mylar she had spread in an old darkroom developer tray. She quickly discovered that the balls settled into a neat grid, and wouldn’t provide the texture Frost wanted. She decided to bury some magnets among the balls, so they would bunch together. “Also, I was placing the tray on sawhorses, so I put some strong magnets underneath the tray to keep some balls in place,” she says. She adds, “A lot of what I do is a little of the mad scientist.”

Christina Ambers, an experienced hand model, was cast for the job. “Having a good hand model can make or break a shoot, just as much as a fashion model can,” Blackburne says, adding, “What looks natural to the camera might not be in actuality.” Blackburne had Ambers pose so that the nails were visible at the top of the image. The background and the bracelets helped create a frame that focused the eye on the nail color. 


“I used an extra-small softbox to create the overall light that would be flattering on the hand and create highlights in the ball,” the photographer says. The Chimera softbox, which measures about a foot by a foot and a half, was placed over the hand and props, and moved just slightly to camera left. Blackburne also lined up white reflector cards around all sides of the tray to bounce light back onto the reflective balls. 

To provide further fill on the hand, Blackburne set up a Profoto head with a reflector to the right of the tabletop, and pointed it toward the ceiling just above the hand, so light bounced down onto the model’s hand. She set the Profoto Acute 2400R power pack to low power. Blackburne also added another white card right where the model’s arm enters the frame for further reflection. The only problem for the model was that she couldn’t see how her hand looked: The card in front of her obscured her view.

For additional coverage in anticipation of some compositing in post, Blackburne also took another shot of the hand with even more fill. For this shot, she held a white card between the model’s arm where it entered the frame and the camera and angled it so that it caught the light from the softbox but didn’t obscure the camera lens. 

She used a nearly identical lighting setup when she photographed Ambers’ hand on silver Mylar, but she wanted to make sure there was some contrast and areas of darkness in the folds and creases. She moved the Profoto further to camera left and used a large silver card to throw some fill into the crumpled Mylar. 


Blackburne’s go-to camera is a Fuji GX680. “It’s such a great camera for still life,” she says. “It pretty much has the front movements of a 4×5, but you can look through the lens.” She uses a Phase One IQ digital back and shoots tethered to her computer. She shot each of the still lifes with her camera on a Foba stand, roughly three feet away from the model’s hand. 

She chose a 125mm Fujinon f/5.6 lens, and shot at f/22 at ISO 100. “I made sure I used a long enough lens to be able to get up high enough and not be dealing with camera reflection,” she notes.


If a job requires more than simple color correction or clean up, Blackburne prefers to handle the retouching and compositing herself. She draws the line, however, at retouching skin, which requires delicacy. “With hands especially, the meat of the palm has to be softened or it can become a focus. It’s also about making sure the hand lines are softened so they aren’t too prominent but the hand still has texture,” she says. “There is a fine line between over-retouched, and not retouched enough.”

Blackburne has been collaborating with retoucher Tzveta Stamatova for about two years. She’ll often give Stamatova a mock up of a composite as a guide but, says Blackburne, “after working together for two years, she knows what I like.” She prefers to hand over processed TIFFs rather than RAW files. On the shot of the pachinko balls, in addition to retouching the hand, Blackburne recalls, “We took down a little bit of the saturation and contrast in the background, to make sure the nails stood out more.” The shot of reflective Mylar required more extensive retouching, she notes. “It reflected everything in the room.” When each composite was done, Blackburne got a flattened TIFF she delivered to the client. When the completed images were published as full pages in Nail It!, says Blackburne, “I really liked how they came out.”

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