Board Game Photography 101: Light


So you want to be a photographer? Got a camera? Great! You’re a photographer. What’s that? You want to be a world-class, high end, board game photographer? Well, I’m still working on figuring that out myself, but I can give you some tips on how to in improve and maybe, with a little practice, you’ll be jet setting around the world taking photos of the hottest board games around.

Photography is all about light. The word photography, taken from Greek, can be translated as “writing with light.” Learning and understanding how light will affect you photograph will take your photography much further than learning what all the dials and menus on your fancy camera do. So first things first, make sure you have enough light. Many cameras these days have incredible low light performance, but it will always be more difficult to shoot in low light than a well lit scene. You won’t have to deal with image noise, low shutter speeds, and nailing your focus will be easier. In order to have a well lit scene, you need a light source.

“My camera has a flash, so I’m all set, right?”

Well, not exactly. Yes, your flash will provide light, but it’s probably not going to get you the results your looking for. Let’s take a look.

You see, the flash provides an adequate quantity of light, but it’s quality that we’re after. There are many qualities of light that will affect the final outcome of your photo, but we’ll focus on just two: direction and softness.

One the biggest reasons pictures taken with direct flash don’t look great is because the direction of light is unnatural. Think about where the light is coming from. Often, the included flash is very close to the camera lens. Now translate this to how you see things with your eyes. You probably aren’t holding a flashlight next to your face as you go about your day (If you are, I’d be very interested to know why). We’re used to seeing things lit from a source of light that’s on a different axis than our eyes. People are very good at discerning when something looks out of the ordinary even if they can’t quite put their finger on why.

Another reason to avoid direct flash is to avoid reflections. Most board games are relatively flat. Light travels in a straight line and when it encounters a surface it will reflect at the angle at which it hit it. When taking a photo of board games, we’re typically shooting them straight on and with the light from the flash traveling on the same axis as the lens, most of it will bounce back into the lens. This will light to lots of glare and reflections, i.e. specular highlights.

Now here’s the thing, specular highlights aren’t a bad thing and having your light source on the same axis as the lens is necessarily bad either, but this is BGP 101, remember? We’re going to make it as easy as possible for you take up your photo game. So first lesson: Get your light source away from the lens. But where to put it? That is really up to you to decide. Here’s an exercise. Set up a game and use the light on your phone to illuminate the game. Stand in one place and pan the light all around the board. Take notice of how the light, and importantly, shadows, move depending on the direction of the light. What looks best to you? What doesn’t? This is where you can put your own spin on things.

Something important to consider when determining the direction of your light is depth. I mentioned earlier that board games are relatively flat, but that doesn’t mean that they are completely devoid of depth. Cards and boards have texture. Dice and cubes have volume. And even tiles will sit higher than the surface they are resting on. Showing off the depth of the game goes a long way towards showcasing its tactile nature. The problem is that photographs are two dimensional representations of a three dimensional world. The best tool available for us to convey depth is with shadow.

Every shadow tells our brain that there is a difference in height. When we fill in all those shadows with light, we get a flat image. With board games, the more acute the angle of light hits the components, the more shadow there will be. In short, light from the side will show more texture. You can experiment with the exact angle of light to get varying amount of shadows and depth. This is a creative decision and you should use your own discretion to achieve the photo that’s most appealing to you.

So we tackled light direction now let’s move on to softness. Light can described along a spectrum between hard and soft. In order to discern what type of light you have, it’s easiest to study the shadows. If the shadow has a well defined edge and is solid throughout, you have hard light. If the shadow’s edge if fuzzy and there is a gradient, you have soft light. Neither is good or bad, they are just tools to understand. I have found that the harsh shadows created by hard light can make it hard to see the art and graphic design elements of the game so I tend to use soft light and it’s what I’ll recommend to you as you start off. Hard light works better when you have relatively clean backgrounds and want to emphasize shapes.

The softness of light will change depending upon the relative size of the light source in comparison to the subject. The larger the relative size, the softer the light will be. I use the term relative because distance plays a part as well. The sun is the largest light source around, but it will create hard light because it is far away that it’s basically the same size as a light bulb relative to the subject. If you’ve ever seen a studio shoot or had your school photo taken, you might have noticed the photographer using umbrellas or softboxes. This increases the effective size of the light source which creates softer shadows.

This photo was taken with a large light source to the left of the subject which results in very soft shadows.

So how can you get a large light source? Just buy yourself a lighting kit and you’re good to go. What’s that? You don’t want to drop $2,000 on some lights? Fine, I guess we’ll do this the hard way.

As you can see, people spend a lot of money to get the kind of light they want, but there’s still a way to achieve good quality light on a budget. When using an umbrella, the idea is that when the light hits it, it now becomes the light source. So we can use this same idea with items you have lying around the house. If you have some sheer cloth, you can put it between your light source and the table and you’ll now have a large, soft light. Don’t have cloth? You can bounce the light off of the ceiling or a nearby wall. You’ve now created a really large light source, but just make sure that you block the light from directly lighting the game.

You can use any light you have, but keep in mind that you will lose intensity when bouncing or shooting through material. This means that you’re sacrificing the first subject we talked about, quantity, for quality. You can certainly use brighter lights if you have them or a standalone flash unit if you want to get fancy. But let’s use something that we all have access to, the sun. I know I said the said is a hard light source and it’s true, but we can modify it. You could certainly set up your game outside with a tent of diffusion material, but that’s a lot of work. Instead we’ll use another thing we all have access to, windows.

Sunlight coming through a window has all the qualities that we are looking for. The sun will provide the quantity of light that we need to make a well-lit photo that doesn’t ask our cameras to work too hard. Importantly, you have to make sure that the sun is not shining directly through the window otherwise the sun is still the lights source. We’re just putting a pane of glass between it. Instead, we want the ambient light to shine through. Now the light source is the window and, in relation to the board game, it’s a nice big one. And guess what? Unless you’re using a skylight, the window light is coming in from the side which will give us the nice depth that we’re looking for.

This was taken with a Moto Z Play, a middle of the road smartphone camera. You don’t need expensive equipment as long as you have good light. The window is to the right of the board.

Window light is some of the best light around. Unfortunately, it’s not the most flexible. You can’t use it at night and it’s really hard to move a window. Instead you’ll have change the angle of your camera to get different looks. Your photos might start looking very similar if all you use is window light, but there are other tools to keep it varied which we’ll cover in later lessons. For now, experiment with light and feel free to ask me any questions in the comments or on instagram.


I love board games. The more esoteric, the better.

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