Photographing pinballs on playfields

A pinball machine photo isn't complete when you can't see a pinball on the playfield. It just transfers a still life into an action shot. Your picture becomes more dynamic and interesting to look at.
You can create great macro shots with pinballs, but as they act like little mirrors and reflect everything around. They are in my opinion one of the most difficult things about pinball machines to photograph well.
At the same time, they can be the most rewarding if you get it 'right'. Choosing a correct position and controlling what playfield art is reflected is one of the most creative parts of pinball photography.
Here are some tips for photographing pinballs.

pinball closeup on playfield
Find the photographer..

Use a brand new pinball.

With todays high resolution cameras, every little scratch will show up and will make all reflections fuzzy and ugly. Buy a pinball to only take pictures off and never play a game with it. Or be prepared to work a lot in Photoshop to remove all the faults (and even then you won't get it perfect).

Stick it to the playfield with a bit of tape (I use electrical insulation tape) to keep it in position.
Poster tack can also be used.

pinball on playfield

No action, only still life.

Don't try to photograph a pinball in motion. It just won't work, they move too fast. You will become frustrated because you'll never get composition right. When you do succeed to get it in the frame after a lot of trial and error, it will show up as a blurry mess. The trick to show a pinball in motion on the playfield is to shoot it stationary and use a 'motion blur' filter in Photoshop afterwards.

Control reflections

As the pinball is a mirror it will reflect everything around it, including camera, photographer and the whole room. This usually just doesn't look nice. (Unless you want to achieve this effect, check bottom picture at this site.)
There are several ways to make a 'perfect' pinball reflection, you'll get the best results when you combine them:
- Photoshop it.. some people smooth the top half of a pinball in photos to remove every reflection of what's outside the playfield.
- Keep the camera far away and shoot with the maximum zoom you can, then the reflection of the camera will be much smaller. When your camera is only an inch away from the pinball it's the only thing that will show up in the pinballs reflection..
- Make some sort of lightbox around the game: hang white or black sheets on both sides of the game, even on the ceiling, so what's reflected is either dark (or just shoot in a darkened room), or completely white..

The last solution, making a giant lightbox, is also the best when you need to add additional lighting. The sheets will diffuse light so it's even.

Another way to add light is to bounce it. Put a 500W halogen floodlight next to the game, shining up, bouncing off a white ceiling. If you have a white ceiling that is.. bouncing light of colored walls/ceilings will give a color cast (that you can correct using a custom whitebalance).
The white ceiling will show up nicely in the reflection on the pinball as a large white spot.

You can use large sheets of white cardboard or white styrofoam to bounce light. One setup for instance is to have a light source on one side of a playfield and a large reflector at the other side that acts as a fill-light. The playfield will be nicely lit, have no dark shadowed areas.

Use consistent light sources

Space Station playfield
Make sure the lights are consistant.

See the 'mistakes' in above photograph ? This scene was lit by the lamps in the ceiling of my gameroom.
There are a lot of lamps.. this results in 5 lightsource reflections that can be seen in the pinball. People are used and prefer to see only one highlight in a spherical object.
The hard light sources from all sides also cause inconsistent shadows. The pinball throws a big shadow towards the bottom right. But the flipperbat has two shadows, one similar to the pinball towards the bottom right, and also a shadow going up towards the shadow cast by the pinball ?! Most people probably won't notice this straight away, but notice it when they look closer. People notice subconscious there's something not right with the picture.
So take care about small details like this. Mankind is used for millions of years to have one hard light source (the sun) which causes one shadow. Most pictures of pinballs will look best if you only have one hard lightsource and one direction of shadow.

So what's my solution to be able take photos with pinballs ? I turn off the ceiling lights and use other sources of illumination (external flash, floodlights, ..)
If you can't turn them off, hold a white sheet above the game, this makes the hard lights look soft so you don't get highlights but it becomes one large white spot (see first picture)..

Parts of this tutorial: