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With the explosion of wireless technology, online selling and shopping has become a multi-billion dollar industry whose currency is photography. Product photos advertise everything imaginable, from guitars to electronics to clothing. As new standards of visual advertising become mainstream the demand for ever-more-impressive images continues to grow.

Prior to the digital camera revolution, product photographers tended to be specialists who had mastered the intricacies of studio lighting. Film was expensive and without the benefit of instant results, product photographers needed to develop (over a period of much experimentation) an instinctive knowledge of their craft. Touching up photos in the darkroom was so time consuming that photographers preferred to use every lighting trick in the book to achieve great results during a shoot.

Digital cameras changed all that of course. Product photography is no longer the exclusive realm of the specialists. Today all kinds of photographers can produce excellent product images thanks to high ISO capabilities, unlimited shooting, instant results, and powerful software, all of which encourages fast and easy experimentation.

I was recently asked to bid on a project for a racing parts company to shoot product photos of hundreds of items for a catalog and website. As I had only limited experience with product photography I decided to first shoot a handful of the products to give me an idea of the scope of work. After some research, in particular reading an excellent book titled Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, I dove in.

Setting Up

One of the first things I addressed was my studio setup. My space requirements were small, as the parts I intended to shoot were no bigger than my hand. Everything would be shot still so I didn’t need to accommodate motion. My main requirement was to use a seamless white background, as each product would be displayed as such in print and online.

product-photography-shoot-elias-butlerPhoto Courtesy of Elias Butler

To ensure that I’d be able to inspect my images as I made them, I first assembled my tether table. With product photography you want to make any needed corrections to focus, lighting, and composition as you shoot, and there’s no easy way to see the all-important details without tethering to your computer. The Tech Table made all this easy.

My next concern was lighting. I prefer to shoot with natural light whenever possible but realized this time I would be relying on studio lights. I looked into different systems including continuous tungsten lights, quartz halogen lights, and studio strobes. While strobes are a great option due to their high power and low heat output, they aren’t cheap and I wasn’t sure yet whether I would be called on for the job.

I ultimately decided to go with my portable flashes. Although not ideal due to the limited power and small light source (which can invite hard shadows and glare), they were already in my kit. Using reflectors and umbrellas to soften the light worked for me, but the flashes proved to be a challenge which I will explain in a bit.

If the products happened to be larger, I would have used a backdrop stand and roll of white seamless paper as a backdrop. Yet in this case I wanted a smaller-scale backdrop and found one within easy reach. My light table that I use for slide film measures 2×3 feet and the frosted white plexiglas gave me a flat, white, and reflective surface upon which to shoot the products.

I assumed during the setup that I would be shooting with my dedicated macro lens, which allows for extreme close-ups when photographing small objects. However I soon realized that the best-looking images would be made with a longer lens, in this case an 80-200mm zoom, with the focal length at about 120mm. The reason? Small objects look best when photographed from a distance so that distortion and focus can be controlled more easily.

The Product Shoot

One thing I learned right away was that the material of which an object is made will determine how difficult it is to photograph. My products were all made of metal, such as aluminum sprockets, so I would be dealing with very reflective surfaces. This meant I would have it relatively easy. Metal reflects light very predictably and thus would be easier to light than say, matte plastic.

product-photography-shoot-elias-butlerPhoto Courtesy of Elias Butler

After carefully dusting the first sprocket (dust specks will drive you crazy once you see an object magnified in the computer), I placed two flash units on opposite sides of it and diffused one with a shoot-through umbrella, and the other with a small on-flash diffuser. Although I could begin shooting quickly, the fact that I could only see what the light was doing when taking a shot slowed the process somewhat. I could see how a continuous light system would solve this issue. 

My goal was to remove any unwanted shadows and glare while evenly lighting the curved sprocket. By moving the flashes to and fro, I began to see where the light needed to be and where it needed to be eliminated. These movements were minuscule yet each made a significant change to the way the sprocket looked.

When I reached a point where I couldn’t improve the lighting any further, I propped up a pair of reflectors on the light table: A white paper plate on one side, and a large silver reflector on the other. By adjusting the position of these reflectors, I filled in the shadows with light and soon had an evenly-lit sprocket. 

product-photography-shoot-elias-butlerPhoto Courtesy of Elias Butler

Here is where another challenge arose. When shooting small objects, a small aperture is needed in order to ensure that focus remains sharp throughout the image. I dialed in F27 on my camera yet my flashes lacked the power to adequately illuminate the scene at this F-stop. My solution was to raise the ISO. This worked, however I would have preferred to use a lower ISO for less noise. Again I was reminded how a studio lighting system would be helpful!

There was one last adjustment to make. The plexiglas surface of the light table showed a clear reflection of the sprocket. The answer was to attach a polarizer to my lens. This removed the reflection easily and at last I could photograph the part with no shadows, reflections, or unwanted glare.

Product photography is a challenge but offers a perfect lesson in learning how to shape and control light. A combination of science and art, it can improve your skills and make you more marketable as well.

Elias Butler

Elias Butler is a professional photographer and writer based in Arizona. He's written a book titled "Grand Obsession" and has been published in Sierra, USA Today, and Arizona Highways among many others. See Butler's website here.


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