Rim Lighting a Mission First Tactical Compensator

Rim lighting is a good way to separate flat-black firearm products from a dark background in photography, like this Mission First Tactical compensator. The lines of white on the sides distinguish the outline/borders from the black. You can set up a pair of flashes behind, angled slightly at the product to generate the effect, but doing so risks flare in the lens and an unwanted “wash” of light everywhere else.

It’s tougher than it looks, but here’s a different approach.

Go Big in Back

The Mission First Tactical compensator (model E2ARMD1) seen here is for an AR-15. It’s around 3 inches long, so I we’re close to macro range—if not there. I used a Canon 100 mm f 2.8 macro lens, if you’re wondering.

The flexible gloss vinyl background is roughly two feet wide and four feet long. It dwarfs the compensator, needless to say, but I needed spare material above. At the back it curls up, held by a light stand (anything tall will work) roughly two or three feet higher than the compensator.


A strobe wearing an Impact Luxbanx Small Octagonal Softbox is behind, literally pushed up against the vinyl. It’s 12 inches wider than the vinyl background, so 6 inches were exposed toward the camera on both sides of the background.

To kill ambient light the shutter speed was set at 200. ISO was 160 to minimize noise should the photo wind up being used with one of my articles in a print magazine. That meant I had to run the lens wide open at f 2.8.

Mission First Tactical compensator, Fear & Loading, Guy J. Sagi, gun porn, gun photography, firearm pix
Here’s the Mission First Tactical compensator image’s first step, rim highlights created by diffused directional light from behind the vinyl sheet.


As you can see to the right, it works. Bear in mind, though, if one side of the soft box is exposed more than the other the rim lighting will be uneven. You can use that to your advantage or shift things until you’re comfortable with the results.

Great, you’re thinking to yourself (or telling a co-worker who’s more interested in today’s cafeteria specials). “I can’t see a darned detail in that Mission First Tactical compensator. Its whole body is black.”

Masking the Mission First Tactical Compensator

Mission First Tactical Compensator, Fear and Loading, Guy J. Sagi, gun porn, gun photography, firearm porn, firearm photography,
The second step is exposing the compensator for detail.

You’re right, but at this point I took a photo (actually series of photos) of the muzzle device, exposing for proper detail (left). I opened it in Photoshop, as well as the backlit version I preferred.

Then I copied one, pasted it on the other, and applied a layer mask. That allowed me to “paint” in the rim lighting, while avoiding detail-draining washout and flare. I rotated the image on top for this blog. The compensator was vertical for the photo session.

Sounds simple enough, but masking takes practice, and I can’t possibly improve upon some of the great tutorials out there. I’m no Photoshop expert, that’s for sure, so I encourage you to read about the technique if you like what you see.

Macro work has its own unique set of challenges that about tripled my time on this single image. It’s an expertise all its own, so I’ll spare you that series of headaches for now.

The method’s certainly interesting and budget friendly. I simply moved around a single strobe to create this composite image. If you give it a try I’d sure love to hear your results or what you think of the technique.   



Improving Detailed Gun Photos on the Cheap

In the above image, the main light source is from the right. A 69-cent silver card to the left bounces so much light on the shady side of the M855 EPR cartridge, however, that is almost looks like a flash was running there. Copyright Guy J. Sagi

Deep, information-robbing shadows in images leave readers scratching their heads when they want a close look at gear. It's a shame, too. There are ways of improving detailed gun photos on the cheap, and here's one of my favorites that might set you back $2—probably less.

Give It Bounce

The solution's straightforward and doesn't require adding flashes or flashlight-holding assistants. In my studio I often use mirrors or commercial reflectors to bounce sunlight or flash into an object's dark nooks and crannies. OK, honestly, I do it most of the time because light is shy about shimmying around corners.

Reflectors or mirrors with stands are perfect. Unfortunately, they're heavy, big, usually pricey and the latter carries a seven-year threat of bad luck when dropped.

Craft Stores are Your Friend

improving gun detail photos on the cheap, Guy J. Sagi, Fear & Loading, M855 EPR
Here's a look at the setup for the image. To kill that ugly shadow—seen coming from the M855 EPR round here—in the photo above, the card stock was simply moved more to the left. Copyright Guy J. Sagi

One option is so inexpensive and effective that it borders on ridiculous. Silver card stock comes in 12x12-inch sheets are only 69 cents right now at Michaels. So go ahead and splurge. Buy two. Call me a cheapskatee, but there are some serious advantages.

First, and foremost, the silver lining on one side does a great job reflecting light into otherwise dark areas, ensuring readers get a good look at all the details. That fact alone makes it an invaluable asset in your bag of lighting tricks. Yes, Photoshop can handle those "black holes" if you take your images in Raw, but you risk adding noise. And when print magazines require 300 dpi, a little noise goes a long way—not the right way, either.

Second, they store flat and weigh next to nothing. The system is light enough that I always take some to the SHOT Show, and more than a few of the photos I've taken on the floor have been used in magazines. NRA members are subjected to them weekly on my Fear and Loading blog at AmericanRifleman.org.

The third big advantage has to do with luck. No batteries die unexpectedly and seven-year curse risk is minimized. At the price, this method of improving detailed gun photos on the cheap is disposable, anyway.


For smaller items this approach can be ideal. Bear in mind, though, it won't flood a huge area with light and ganging groups of these is like herding cats—wild ones.


Making it a Stand Up Guy

There's also no stand or mechanism for aiming the bounced light. I use binder clips—you know, those big spring-loaded paper clip replacements. The odds are good you have a bunch hanging around the house or office, but if not, Office Depot can set you up with a dozen for only $5.59.

Simply attach a pair to the bottom of the card stock you're using, then place strategically on the shady side of the item you're photographing. Adjust the wire "legs" until the reflection is aimed properly. The paper has a short-term memory, so you can slightly flex/bend to fine tune direction. It won't stay in that position for long, but in a pinch it's effective if you work fast.

The low-cost system works well enough that serial numbers can even show up on photos for insurance purposes. Here's a look at a setup I used earlier this year for handgun photos.


M855 EPR, Fear and Loading, Guy J. Sagi
The simple technique really shines on white, where a shadow remains, but details within can be seen easily. Copyright Guy J. Sagi

Make sure you get silver card stock that has a plain white side. There are times when reflecting white is a better option, but there is the possibility things will muddy up where up don't want it.

Cut one sheet into quarters. Big 12x12-inch sheets are nice, but often get in the way. There are times when lower-profile 6x6s are ideal.

You'll be tempted to toss your reflectors in a drawer, where they'll be forever forgotten. I punch a hole near the edge of mine and leave them hanging with my photo gear—the paper-binder stands are staged on a hook nearby.

It's not a perfect solution, but pretty darned close. And, at the price it's a great way of improving detailed gun photos on the cheap.

Give it a try and link to the results. I'd love to see how it works out for you.

Vortex spotting scope taken strobist style

When it came time to create a thumbnail for my YouTube upload today, I went with the spotting scope taken strobist style. I theorized my flashes would light things well due to the overcast, although rain forced a premature retreat. I have very few outtakes, although I hope this one attracts some attention in the boring sea of Google images. Let me know what you think. I wish I had more time to adjust, but here’s a quick look at what I did and why.

Setup from Behind

One of the challenges in outdoor photography is pulling the subject out of what is often a relatively confusing background. Take a look at the scope body around the objective lens. That white ring of light makes it stand out, despite the dark water behind. Now look at the black adjustment knobs, where the same is true on their front face. A sliver of light is also on the Picatinny rail atop (toward the back).strobist photography, spotting scope taken strobist style, Fear and Loading, Guy J. Sagi, Vortex Viper Spotting Scope

That’s accomplished by placing a flash behind and to the right of the Vortex Viper Spotting Scope. I used my Canon 580EX II dialed up to full output (it was about six feet away, after all). Pocket Wizards remotely triggered it from my Canon 5D Mk4.

The preliminary result wasn’t exactly breathtaking, as you can see to the right. Nice rim light, but the front is dark and ugly. Yes, I take everything in RAW so I could pull that out, but I risk noise and why not complete the spotting scope taken strobist style project with style?

So I broke out an ancient Nikon SB28 that’s my outdoor workhorse. I might have it buried with me if no one in the family claims it first. I then connected it to a third Pocket Wizard, turned it to 1/8 power and placed it between the scope and the camera, to the left.

Toughest Part of a Spotting Scope Taken Strobist Style

I sprayed water on the Vortex and had the Nikon flash on the ground. Moving it a single inch changed the reflection on the droplets, so I could have spent hours there. A light drizzle had begun, though. I had to move move fast and caught very few outtakes from the session.

I took the pspottign scope taken strobist style, Vortex Viper HD spotting scope, Fear & Loading, Guy J. Sagi, strobist gun photographyhoto above last before the rain and it’s the one I uploaded to my Fear and Loading channel.

The image to the left was taken with the same setup. Notice how the water’s reflection on the scope has changed, the result of moving the Nikon flash only a few inches (closer to the camera, but still to the left). The difference is dramatic, don’t you think?

Strobist style is my go-to technique in the outdoors, and it doesn’t require multiple flashes. Here’s a look at a simple one I did in full daylight.





Crafting the words and images that capture the spirit of the outdoor sports and the beauty that surrounds them.