How to Layer for Gun Photography

how to layer for gun photography

On occasion people ask about the approach I take to try and make guns and products look more dynamic in photos. I admit there are others better versed at the technique, but here is a beginner’s look at how to layer for gun photography. Hopefully, it will give you an appreciation for the work that goes into creating images for Shooting Illustrated, American Rifleman, Predator Xtreme and other publications I contribute to.  

It starts with dusting and cleaning, followed by positioning the gun or object, followed by more scrubbing and canned air. The lens detects very hair and particle, even those invisible to the eye. They look worse when you use a flash and fingerprints are a real problem.

Before you attempt this, Photoshop or image editing software is required.

Camera Setup

The camera goes on a tripod. My iPhone connects to its Wifi for remote triggering. In a pinch I use the shutter release timer. Any movement in the camera is a disaster when you layer for gun photography.

Products on a black background are easiest, so that’s the approach described here. The camera goes on manual and the shutter speed is usually at 1/200th of a second. Now take a picture. It should be completely black, everywhere. If not, dial the F-stop down or decrease ISO.

Most flashes and cameras don’t play together well if you increase shutter speed past 1/200.

Flash Setup

I use a single Canon 580 EXII flash connected to one Pocket Wizard with another riding on my camera. The setup and technique will work on any DSLR and many point-and-shoot cameras.

Flash output must also be on manual, at least in my case, because I prefer the simplest radio-controlled Pocket Wizards. Complexity is an enemy when running and gunning in the field and when it fails in the studio it’s just as frustrating.

The next challenge is directing the light only where you want. Letting it scatter around the room and light other objects defeats your work. There’s a workaround in image editing software, but it doesn’t always work.

The solution is to roll something up—a magazine, aluminum foil—into a tube and slide one end over the flash head. That way all the light produced directs out the other side in a small area without scatter on unwanted objects.

Hit the Shutter

Now point your “flash barrel” at one part of the object or firearm and hit the camera’s timer or shutter release. Be mindful you and it do not show up in the image.

Review the photo and make sure you have nice light on the targeted area. If it is too dark, increase the flash power or open the aperture slightly.

Keep trying until you capture something you like. Visualize it as only one component in a dozen parts before you delete failed attempts. It is easy to think they are not working when one could be that ideal light flare that adds to the look of a riflescope lens.

Once the camera settings are correct, aim at different parts of the gun/object and take a photo each time. Yes, it’s slow and painstaking to try and capture all the best-looking stuff—it’s a necessary evil, though.

Do not forget to take some from behind, both below and above, for rim lighting. In fact, I do those first at steep angles to avoid appearing in the photo.

Capture more images than you think are necessary. You can always delete anything that does not work and if you try again later, you’ll be cleaning again.

How to Layer for Gun Photography

When done, import the images into Photoshop or your image editing program—all of them. Now have the software arrange them into a single stack. In Photoshop you find that command under file/scripts, and then “Load files in stack.”  

Some programs have an option to automatically align. I never had good luck with it at all, so I ignore it. If your experience is better, let me know.  

Once stacked you simply change each layer’s blend mode to lighten. Hopefully, you will be surprised how well the final image builds.

how to layer for gun photography
First two shots in a layer

Editing Layers

Odds are good a layer or two will be too bright or show an unwanted item behind. Simply delete or turn them off. If you’re more advanced in photo editing you can also apply a mask or edit the individual layer to appropriate levels.

how to layer for gun photography
Add another layer

That’s all there is to it. Two hours behind the camera, another four in front of a computer and one of the 20 images or so required for a single story is complete. And people think writers/photographers are making a fortune.

how to layer for gun photography
A couple more to bring out foreground

The above image is the one I liked and it has more than a dozen individual photos stacked.Here’s a look at how it turned out in Predator Xtreme magazine. I used spares in a video on my modest Fear and Loading YouTube channel if you want to see more of the Sightmark Wraith.

how to layer for gun photography
And things are starting to take shape

Hopefully this short look at how to layer for gun photography gives you a better appreciation for the images on firearm websites and in magazines. Well, the good ones, anyway.

Of course, things don’t have to be this complicated. If you missed it, here’s a blog about inexpensive techniques to improve your gun photography.