Product Photography Basics

Product Photography Basics

Many photographers see shooting products as fiddley and boring, they would rather be outdoors capturing a new landscape or a sporting event. I get it, hanging out in the studio moving lights a quarter of an inch at a time to get the perfect illumination on your subject is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you are looking at getting into product photography, what do you need, and what went wrong and right with this image? Let’s talk about it.

The setup

For my product images, my camera is a Canon 5DmkIV with 70-200 f2.8 IS II, and the strobes I use are Profoto, D2, B10 and B10 plus. I use a 36-inch Profoto Octabox and a couple of 1X3 Profoto strip boxes. This setup gives me the flexibility to light something in a larger area with the octa or focus my light with the strip boxes. I also often use Profoto barn doors when I don’t need the light to be softened (in the case of shooting glass or bottles). I calibrate my color with the Datacolor color checker passport which I use before every shoot to ensure that I end up with the most accurate color rendering possible. I’m often asked about my choice of light stands, and for the larger D2 strobe I always use a C-stand which gives more stability and flexibility when shooting, and standard Manfrotto or Photoflex light stands for the rest of the lighting setup. Now that you know the way I lit the image, lets discuss what is wrong with it.

It should be noted that the photo taken below is representative of the light level I shoot at when I do product work. 

Product photography basics

Shooting any product presents a challenge of walking a fine line between creating an image that is aesthetically pleasing, and one that makes the product you are capturing the star of the show. Product photography is not setting up a still life and clicking away. If you are shooting a watch, then creating a scene with objects that compliment the colors of the item is great but creating a still life with superfluous objects that detract from the featured product should be avoided. As a side note, (and a bit of a rant) when shooting food, the goal of the image should always be to make the food look appetizing, and that requires someone who knows how to stage food for imagery and lighting that makes the viewer want to eat the food. This type of photography requires a lot more planning than standard product work and should not be attempted by someone who has not nailed the basics of lighting products. I cannot even fathom the number of poor photos I have seen for menus taken by photographers who have no clue about what goes into making a good food image.  Sorry – rant over, lets talk about this image.

What is right about the image?

This image is for a new line of jewelry my wife created. The goal was to create a lifestyle setting where the viewer could see how the piece would fit into the lifestyle of the person purchasing the product. The goal in the image was to create a darkened background, that would bring the subject forward and be the star of the show. For this I put a black shirt on my model mannequin and used that setup to dial in the lights for the image. The black shirt and nondescript nature of the mannequin would allow the viewer to see how the necklace sits on the body, but there is a problem with the photo, did you see it?

The problem lies with the shirt on the mannequin, it has a Wheatly Vodka logo. I picked up this shirt at a local whiskey festival and use it often when I teach portrait lighting classes here in the studio. Having a realistic variety of clothing options to practice on allows those learning to shoot portraits experience lighting clothing with different levels of reflectivity, and how the color cast created from clothing affects the subjects being photographed. In this case, the logo is an issue because it detracts from the piece of jewelry, but also because I do not have (or do I claim to have) the rights to use the Wheatley Vodka logo in my images. If I were creating this image for a customer, delivering a photo to be used in an ad campaign with another companies’ logo would be an issue on so many levels. A side note – I provide this image with the logo with the intent that my readers learn from it.

In general, it is a good idea to use objects which are not represented by copyright in your photos. Nearly everything is copyrighted (even the mannequin in the photo) and you as the photographer needs to be aware that having any visible logo or recognizable shape in your product photos could get the person using the photo in trouble legally. Product owners are rampantly litigious and spend millions of dollars protecting their product’s image, so be careful. You are always safer choosing objects from nature like driftwood etc. to display and photograph your products on.

What can we learn from this photo?

Light value (how light or dark areas of the images are) can be instrumental in drawing the eye of the viewer to the desired portion of the frame. In this case, the brightness of the necklace combined with the bright sparkle of the gems help to focus the viewers eye to the product being featured. This is a rough square crop, and I would likely crop in much closer to feature just the necklace if I were looking to deliver a final image.

When it comes to ambient light, use the darkness to your advantage, dialing in your ambient light is one of the most important things to master when shooting anything indoors, especially products. To do this is super simple, shooting in manual mode, set your camera to your lowest ISO (100-200), f5.6 shutter 1/100 and take a photo with the lights in your room off.  Low ISO gives you the least amount of noise in your image and sets the stage to drop your ambient light to 0. Next, adjust your f-stop down (depending on your lens) to f4, and take another shot. Did you notice the image getting darker? Now, dial in the darkness of your exposure by raising your shutter speed to make the image darker and get yourself to black. Now you are ready to control your light with your strobe. Once you are sure that your light source is the only one hitting your subject, you can control the amount and direction of light hitting your subject more precisely. Each room is different, where the light will reflect, and bounce will be different which is why it is only possible to give a starting point for this process.

With practice you can dial in the light hitting your subject and add or remove reflections depending on the requirements of the shot you are creating.

Here is a quick video of the setup I was using. There are always lots of questions when I do this type of article, so feel free to drop me a link on my social media links below and I can endeavor to answer then.

Final thoughts

If you have questions about whether an object you are considering using for a product shot is copyrighted, feel free to drop me a line. My advice is nearly always to assume something is copyrighted and not use it if you have even a slight question in your mind. If you would like more information about my wife’s jewelry you can check her out and contact her on her website at: She makes all her pieces by hand and loves to work with her clients on one of a kind custom creations for weddings or other special occasions.

Before you go…

I love to hear from my readers, did you try this technique? How did it work for you? Do you have questions about product photography? Feel free to drop me a line here on my contact page or on my social media links below. Follow me and I will happily follow you back. Now, get out there and get shooting!

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