How I Got That Shot: Lighting for Clean, Graphic Still Lifes

August 16, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Jiaxi & Zhe

The duo of Jiaxi & Zhe like the way ARRI lights bring out the texture of objects. To make patent leather look smooth and shiny, they diffused an ARRI 650 using white plexiglass.

© Chunmei Jia

Zhe Zhu (left) and Jiaxi Yang of Jiaxi & Zhe.

Client: Vogue China
Creative: Regina Chan, editor

In the two years since the New York-based photographers Jiaxi Yang and Zhe Zhu teamed up to form the duo Jiaxi & Zhe, they’ve shot for Bloomberg BusinessweekWSJ., Wallpaper, The Cut and the furniture design company Stellar Works. Their clients typically rely on their skills at styling and art directing, giving them the freedom to plan every aspect of a shoot, from concept to post-production. Zhu explains, “If they ask us to shoot something, we’ll provide our idea and our plan for how to shoot it.”

Zhu was studying at New York’s School of Visual Arts when the pair decided to work together, and Yang enrolled in a one-year photography program at the International Center of Photography in New York City. After graduating, they set up meetings with potential clients to show their portfolio, made up primarily of architectural images and still-life tests. Though they now generate repeat business from clients hiring them to photograph home goods and fashion accessories, the photographers still make time to shoot personal work—both on their own and together. “Ever since we started shooting advertising and editorial, we find time to do our own photos,” says Zhu. “I think that’s really important for finding out who you are and finding out the way you want to shoot.” Their abstract shots of architecture and their refined, sleek still lifes demonstrate their fascination with modernist art and graphic design. “We like geometry and simple, clean lighting,” says Zhu.

The duo’s love of graphic shapes came to the fore on an assignment last fall for Vogue China. They shot a ten-page story on new luxury accessories, including shoes, bags and jewelry, in just two days at a rental studio they use when shooting in Shanghai. They didn’t know what objects they would be shooting until the day of the shoot. They decided to keep the propping simple and adaptable.


“We started shooting the second day we landed, so the biggest challenge was jet lag,” Zhu recalls. “We were shooting from probably 9 AM to 9 PM. That was the time of day we were sleepy, then we were awake all night.”

Editor Regina Chan specified she wanted a lot of negative space in each shot, and provided some reference photos. Otherwise, Zhu recalls, “we had a lot of freedom in terms of styling and lighting.”

For one shot, they combined a patent leather purse, a gold bracelet, and a boot with a patent-leather toe and heel. They chose a backdrop that matched the mauve color of the boot’s fabric upper. They arranged the accessories on a reflective white surface, then ran thin wires from the arms of c-stands above the set to the bag and the top of the boot to hoist them slightly. Before the shoot, Yang had asked the editor to find several plastic balls. She used one, spray-painted with shiny black lacquer, to prop up the toe of the boot.

They worked out of two small studios. Having a second studio came in handy when, in the hot weather, an old ARRI light caught fire. Zhe says they salvaged all the props, no one was hurt and the shoot continued in a single, smoke-free studio.

Some of the accessories arrived in Shanghai with minute scuffs on them, so they had to be lit differently from the rest of the objects. The duo first shot the whole set, then photographed two parts of the composition separately. Relying on post-production compositing allowed the photographers to adapt their lighting in each shot to bring out the gleam in the patent leather, the bag’s shiny logo and the gradient in the gold jewelry.


To make patent leather look smooth and shiny, they diffused an ARRI 650 using white plexiglass. © JIAXI & ZHE


Jiaxi and Zhe like the quality of ARRI continuous lights, and the way they bring out texture. To light the background, they placed an ARRI 2K near the edge of the tabletop, pointing towards the back wall of the set. Zhu says he wanted the left corner of the table to be bright white, while keeping the objects slightly shaded. They lit the table with a second ARRI 2K, and placed a white silk in front of it, to block part of the light and cast a shadow across the surface.

“For the boot, we wanted the black leather part to be as smooth as possible,” says Zhu, so they decided to use diffused lighting. They placed white plexi next to the toe of the boot, near the jewelry, then placed an ARRI 650 behind it. The light helped enhance the sheen in the patent leather and a highlight in the bracelet.

To make the front of the black patent leather bag look smooth and shiny, they lit it using the ARRI 650 shining through the white plexi. The ARRI has a focusing knob on the back to adjust the light’s intensity and focus. By narrowing the light, they made the bag’s logo shine.


They worked with a Phase One IQ 160, shooting tethered to a monitor. They chose to use one of their favorite lenses—a 120mm manual focus macro lens—at f/16.

For each shot, the exposure was slightly different. For the shot of all the elements, for example, the exposure was 1/10th at ISO 50, but for the shot of the bag alone, it was around 1 second, Zhu says, “because the light was much weaker.”

To maintain exact camera placement and focus stacking as they shot each element of the composite, they would typically use a camera stand but on this assignment, due to limitations at the rental studio, they chose a heavy-duty tripod.

Post Production

Zhu says he and Yang did all their own retouching, “because the turnaround was so tight.” Once they had composited the three images in Photoshop, they also removed the wires that appeared in the shot. The rest of the retouching was limited to “smoothing out some tiny scratches” in the shiny black bag and removing imperfections in the tabletop, Zhu says.

The image appeared in a feature story in the December 2016 issue of Vogue China.

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