Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Product Photography for Beginners

     Product photography seems like a very simple process doesn't it? After all, people photograph things everyday. But the difference between a good product photo and a bad one can be the difference in a buyer wanting your product and purchasing, or deciding to move to another seller because your photo doesn't answer their questions.

When you go have your portrait made, what does the photographer have? There is a set for you, the product, to enter. There is a carefully selected backdrop that will compliment but not compete with you as the subject. It has lights set up at very specific points around the room. Any light that is a flash will have a diffuser in front of it, to avoid creating harsh shadows on, or behind you. There is a camera on a rolling tripod, with a remote shutter release to make sure the picture taken is as sharp as possible. This setup costs thousands of dollars.


You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to get great photos. You don’t need to buy a fancy light box set up to photograph products. Think of photographing small objects as doing a controlled portrait of them in a miniature studio. This is something that can be done in almost any space you have.  My “studio” is also my office, my craft room, and what visually looks like chaos really does have organization.

The lessons we want to take away from the professional portrait studio photographer can be implemented with far less expensive field expedients and good old Yankee engineering.

Light Sources

First of all, my work room has 3 light sources for everyday use. I have an overhead light, a desk light, and the light of the computer screen. When I am doing product photography, I turn off all of those. None of them are daylight bulbs, and they all affect the colors of photography.

I also have 3 lights that I use solely for photography. They are 2 small clamp lamps with daylight bulbs, ($7 each from Walmart) and I replaced the top light in my hutch with a daylight bulb.  You notice in this picture my hutch has a mirror. This has to be covered, because otherwise you have created another light source, one you didn’t mean to and it will affect your photography.

My Studio
                  (You can see where the light is circled in red on the mirror in this picture.)

                  Of course, clear off the work area to put the product in the center of the lights.  

We will construct a very simple stage to showcase the product. (This is a modified light box.) Place your foam board at the back of the area. This is just a single piece, but the tri fold pieces children use for science projects work wonderfully too. They will even stand up by themselves if you don’t have a wall to lean up against.

At this point, depending on the angle you are shooting, you could set up your product, but there could be a harsh line in your photo. Here it would be especially harsh since have contrasting colors of the table and the foam board. It is easier to cover the foam board and the table with a single seamless piece of cloth than trying to avoid photographing the join of wall to table. 

Here I used a sheet to cover up the foam board. I normally prefer to use black, grey, or white velvet, but it is easier to see the sheet in these photos. Using a sheet is perfectly fine as a backdrop, but I have made a mistake already, and I didn’t tumble it in the dryer to remove the wrinkles. If you choose to use a sheet, tumble it. ;-D We want people looking at your products, not the wrinkles.

So now we are ready to start turning off and on lights. This is what you get if you go ahead and photograph using the normal room lights and using the flash on your camera.

This isn’t a bad product photo. But it isn’t great, and would never pass for professional. You can see a very sharp and distinct shadow behind each figure and you want to avoid that. With this harsh light, you can also see each wrinkle, and that is also very distracting. The light is uncontrolled here. The room lights are not enough to light it without using the flash, but the flash is overwhelming the subject.
If we turn off the room lights, then we are in the dark, so in this next picture I have turned on the top light and turned off the flash on my camera. Already we have completely changed the shadows and made the figures look softer and rounder. 

                                          We have also highlighted a different set of wrinkles.
Top light on figure

Think about directing light like painting an object with spray paint. You can control what you see by what gets covered in the spray of the light.

This image has only one light from the left of the photograph.

This image has only one light from the right of the photograph.

     In all these photos, we still have some shadows that are deeper than we want on a product where people need to see detail in order to buy.  Each of these lights reveals a different side of the object, so if we combine these three light sources, we have an evenly lit subject.

Self Timers

Every point and shoot that is not meant to be disposable that I have ever seen comes with a self timer. Even some of the disposables have a self timer since it is the best way to get a self portrait when you are out with friends.
Some self timers are programmable, and you can choose to have them go off after 2, 5, or 10 seconds. No matter what time delay you choose, use the self timer feature. It keeps your hand from shaking the camera as you press the shutter release.

If you are shooting film, some of the older cameras come with a shutter release cable. It screws onto the shutter button and has a remote plunger you press to trigger the shutter. That is another good way to remove the shaking of your hand from the camera.

Tripods and Other Means of Support

So the photos above are looking pretty good. Why do we need a tripod? No matter how still you are, when you push the button on the shutter release, your arm will move slightly. In most photography, it isn’t noticeable, especially if the subject is brightly lit and the camera shutter moves fast to take the picture. (Controlling shutter speeds and aperture settings are a subject for another essay and we are not concerned about them here.) In low light photography, the shutter shake is very noticeable and causes the picture to be less sharp than it was when you looked thru the view finder.
With tripod and self timer

Without tripod, without self timer
 For these two photos, I used two different cameras, one on a tripod and one hand held. You can see the sharpness of the second photo compared to the first photos. (You can also see the difference of the color sensors between the two cameras, but again, that is a topic for another essay.)

Most cameras will accept a tripod, no matter how inexpensive they are. This is my Canon Power Shot A490, and I got it for $60 at Christmas.
These screw threads are the same thread that the professional cameras use.

On a small camera like this, even the cheapest tripod from the Dollar Store or Walmart fits the screw threads and works well to hold the camera.

Tabletop Tripod from Dollar Store  
 $20 Walmart Tripod with extendable legs and
  camera shoe

The tabletop tripod screws directly into the bottom of the camera and is moderately adjustable as to the angle that it holds the camera.  They are prone to falling over, so use with caution.

Attaching shoe to camera
      The larger tripod from Walmart (or comparable big box store) has extendable legs so it is more stable. It also has what is called a “shoe” and that is what screws into the bottom of the camera. The shoe is removable, so you can easily snap the camera on and off the tripod as you want. Don’t loose the shoe. It is unique to each model of tripod, and they don’t sell replacements unless you have a very expensive tripod. If you loose the shoe, you will probably have to buy another tripod. I get around this problem by always leaving the shoe screwed on to the bottom of my camera.

Other Support

     What if you don’t have a tripod? What if you forgot it, or didn’t want to carry it with you?

A beanbag works to hold your camera. It can be as simple as this,

 or you can be fancier and sew a bag for the beans. If you plan on placing the beanbag on something slick like the hood of a car, it would be ideal if the bean bag had a leather patch to keep it from sliding, but it is not necessary. In a pinch, a purse could be used to support the camera, or a coat bunched up. Anything that takes the camera out of your hand the critical fraction of a second that the shutter moves will improve your photos.

            Using these inexpensive techniques, you can produce excellent quality photos of your products. You do not need to invest in expensive cameras, or a professionally made light box, or expensive lights. If you are creative with these basic ideas, photography can be inexpensive. It is rewarding to see your photos come out as you want them to, and to see your products attributes highlighted by the photos.


  1. Colleen-darling,

    Congratulations on your blog! What a info-filled photography lesson! Wow, thank you ... I can certainly learn A LOT from you! ;)

    Thank you so much for letting me know about your blog. I LOVE your work and feel honored to be able to follow you in your blog.

    Happy Blogging, Darling!
    Thea x x x

  2. Thea,
    I'm so glad you found it informative. Hearing from you always brightens my day. ;-D

    happy painting!

  3. Hope always you update and share creative and informative post.