In this tutorial we’ll look at the setup of a product shoot and share some tips and tricks. If I had to rate the most difficult genre of photography in my career then it would be wedding photography. You have to get everything right the first time when you shoot, no time for mistakes. The groom and bride might be ok to kiss again if needed, but some things are just out of the question, “Ah sorry I missed that, can you put the ring on her finger again please?”. Also, the client is paying you to make them look good, actually to make everything look, exceptionally good. Something we as photographers love to control is the lighting and this is not always possible with wedding photography. No seriously, wedding photography is a lot of fun!
If I had to rate the easiest genre of photography for me personally though, then it would be product photography. Everything is controlled; lighting, shooting environment, angles etc. Photoshop used to be in the back of my mind when doing product shoots, but that mindset soon left when I started out with videography. The lighting and everything else needs to be right, straight out of camera. I used to spent a lot of time in Lightroom and Photoshop to fine tune an image, but nowadays I rarely use them for photos. Of course it depends on the type of photography you are doing, but I try to get it right first time which means less time behind a computer screen. I think the most challenging thing for me though, in doing a product video, is to keep the product dust free!
So, now that you know what the most challenging aspect of product photography might be, we can concentrate on the rest.
The setup we share also applies to filming product videos. The only major difference between photo and video is usually a continues lighting setup, if you don’t already have one. In reality we don’t record video, but photos, usually 24 of them for one video frame.
In this tut no post processing were used and most images are straight out of camera. Of course a quick Adobe Lightroom treatment would really make them pop, but we’ll concentrate on getting a good image to work with right from the start.
There are two things that form the foundation for such a setup, and if you get them right, then you’ll have a blast doing the rest of the shoot. You can then concentrate on getting really creative and trying out new things, instead of fiddling with the setup until the cows come home. Good news is, they are quite easy to achieve and they are:
- Key light
- Back drop
It needs to be large, diffused and controlled. Let’s take a quick look at each aspect.
A big soft box works very well and the size is always dependent on the size of the product. In general the bigger the better, but we don’t need a 3m octagon soft box. In general we can lit the human face, or even upper body, beautifully with a 80-120cm soft box. Now usually a smallish product is half the size of the human head (what an awkward example) but we’re heading in the right direction. So a 50-60cm soft box should be suffice in many situations for small products. Sometimes I use a larger soft box to have the light wrap around the product. For continuos lighting I use a LED light.
This is very important, your light source needs to be well diffused! Evenly spread light with no hotspots. Most products looks real good under a well diffused light source. Double diffusion layers in front of the light source goes a long way, but bouncing your light source into a soft box or umbrella gives even better results. A light source like a LED light with say 600 or 900 LED’s mounted inside a soft box, also helps in distributing the light more evenly, as the light source itself is quite large already.
The light should be controlled when it comes to direction and spill light. This means the light source need to be contained by using a soft box or something similar, that can direct and control spill light. Make sure it can be flagged to direct and shape the light. We want to be in full control, see yourself as the director of photography, you also want to be directing the light.
Having these 3 basics in place, will make for a beautiful key light that is easy to work with.
The kind off backdrop you need all depends on the effect or mood you want to achieve, but to keep it simple, it needs to be clean cut, the right size and isolated.
This means it should have one colour and no distractive lines, wrinkles or marks. Finding a backdrop is actually very easy as you can use a wall or just hang a piece of fabric against it. You can even hang a piece of black fabric up against a curtain, just make sure it is not too transparent.
I didn’t write a large size, but the right size. Why? Way back I used to think that I need bigger lights, which means a big studio, big light stands and a huge backdrop. In reality, we don’t need a 6×7 meter backdrop to photograph small products. It’s like bringing cheese curls to a marsh mellow party. If the product is relatively small like the one in this shoot, then a 2m x 2m backdrop should be ample. The one used for this shoot was actually around 1.2m x 1.2m. A huge backdrop is a nice to have, so is extra studio space sometimes. The working space I used for this particular shoot was 2.2m x 3m. Now I don’t do product shoots all the time, so if this is your main income then of course a large studio is the way to go. The point is though that space is not one of the main contributing factors to achieve professional results.
This refers to light control, be it ambient light from a doorway, window or any other light sources. Try to have the ‘studio’ space as dark as possible. Close all curtains and doors and hang some black fabric over it if needed. Try to get it relatively dark, but it doesn’t need to be pitch dark. When the camera settings are set to say f8, with a low ISO and relatively fast shutter speed, then existent low ambient light becomes quite dark and a dark coloured backdrop becomes almost invisible. Once the room is darker, we can switch on studio light sources, adjust there position and output accordingly and flag them to make sure the backdrop stays clean from any spill light. Best way to do this is by doing them one by one. The backdrop doesn’t need to be positioned 5 meters away from the product, in order for it to be thrown out of focus. With this shoot, 1 meter was adequate, even with an aperture of F8. I barely use more than 2 meters for these kind of shoots. In reality, it doesn’t take much to throw a backdrop out of focus so it becomes silky smooth. I once had to photography the interior of a new truck for a graphics company that specifically needed the design and texture of the fabric. It was quite a challenge to get the all the fabric material of the interior in focus, even at F8, with an UWA lens. Since then I have learned that the fine texture on a fabric backdrop is so easy to throw out of focus.
Without further ado let’s have a look at the whole setup to show you the key light and backdrop.
A 300 LED light, mounted inside 50cm soft box, was the main light source. Both diffusion layers that usually accompany soft boxes, were used.
As you can see, the backdrop is very small and fixed onto a curtain in the background. The room was too narrow to mount the fabric onto a side wall. Once the backdrop is in place, then the key light can be angled, flagged and adjusted accordingly to deliver decent light with minimum spill. Always keep in mind that the key light and backdrop operate independently, the key light should not have any influence on the backdrop regarding light. Using live view helps a lot in setting it up correctly. This will ensure that the rest of the shoot is a breeze. If it doesn’t look good on the camera screen, then it won’t look good on any other screen.
Once this is done, then other things can be added like backlight, reflectors, additional light sources, aka creativity. A 300 LED light was added onto the backdrop and it immediately created a beautiful effect. It was easy to adjust and direct the backlight, as there was no other spill light on it, no influence from any other light sources, WYSIWYG.
The right side of the product was a bit dark and needed some fill light and shaping. A longish white reflector was added to serve two purposes:
- Fill light, to lift the shadows
- Rim light, to accentuate the edges and shape the product better.
The product was looking good and ready for the photoshoot, some images straight from the camera sensor.
In some of the setup images, you will notice an extra clamp arm, and this was very important for this specific shoot. A white or black reflector can be clamped onto it to control reflections from the front lens element. This is also why a dark overall room is necessary, as it helps to control any other light reflecting off the lens. If there is any reflection coming off the lens from a window curtain or so, then just hang a piece of black fabric between them. Some white or grey fabric, or a reflector, can also be used though to add beautifully controlled lens reflection. A piece of black cardboard was fitted onto the clamp arm at times to create natural vignetting.
Next thing we want to do is to get detail shots of the product and this can be achieved either with a macro lens or something like a nifty fifty reverse mounted. Macro shots are very easy to accomplish as you don’t even have to move the lights around. Just angle, rotate and move your product to play with different lighting effects. Sometimes I add a small independent light source behind the product, shining straight into the lens of the camera I shoot with, as macro lenses can easily create some beautiful effects.
It is important to remember to compose you macro shots. Also keep the background clean cut and simple when position for macro images. Try to have a background with the same characteristics as the rest of the images. Also make sure the background colours compliment and fit the product.
An image with a distracting background and colours:
Bad positioning regarding lighting:
A supportive background, better lighting and positioning:
The simple setup delivers beautiful images that can really shine with minimal editing. Some macro product detail from the session straight out of camera.
Play of light is very important in such a shoot as it creates depth and form. The camera’s live view can be set to a black and white profile to show the characteristics of the light. In the following B&W image we can see the play of light and I sometimes use this mode in live view to better see dynamic range and contrast.
Finding a surface to display the product on is usually not too difficult as there are no set rules. Just make sure the colour and texture compliment the subject. Depending on the product, a darker surface might help with exposure. If the product has a dark colour then you will need more light to lit it up, but using a lightly coloured surface means it will respond more to the light than the product itself does, making it very bright and distracting. A matt surface like fabric works very well as it doesn’t reflect light as easily. Glossy surfaces do have there place though and could’ve just as well be used in this session. A shoulder bag was used to display the camera on for this shoot.
Tips and Accessories
To make any shoot successful and easier, you might think of getting the following few items, they are inexpensive and easily obtainable.
- Black fabric. I have four lightweight 2m x 2m pieces and use them all the time for blocking, directing and shaping light. They work very well when used opposite a soft box to control bounced light.
- Flexible clamp arms. I use them extensively around the product to clamp small reflectors or holding something in place. Smaller ones are used on soft boxes for flagging
- Reflectors. Anything like white paper, carton, corrugated board or a small round reflector that creates a bit of fill or edge light
- Coloured gels. They come in handy when you want to add a specific colour or effect on the backdrop. Works on a dark coloured background too
- Dust cloth. Preferably something synthetic as pure cotton fabric tends to leave behind small pieces
- Blower. Yep to get rid of dust!
That’s it. It is now time to get the images into Lightroom for some processing! I hope this tutorial shed some light on product photography!