When it comes to product photography, your number one goal should be steady consistency. You want a reproducible process that yields high-quality results time and time again over the long-term. This process can be improved for quality or simplified for efficiency, or even modified for experimental reasons. Ultimately, you’ll set yourself up for less work taking photos, so you can spend more time on your craft.
Is it really a studio?
You might question the terminology when applied to something that in many regards is makeshift and DIY. Most of us don’t have the resources to buy the lighting equipment and modifiers, backdrops, stands etc, that are the hallmarks of a photography studio. Setting aside the space for such an endeavor is also unrealistic.
However, if you consider the broad outlines of what you’re attempting, the definition is suitable. Your ultimate goal is good product photos, and you don’t want to spend a huge amount of time in pursuit of that goal. If you have an online shop, or a portfolio showcasing your work, you likely want a “clean” finished look to those photos, with a similar shared aesthetic. Doing your product photography under repeatable, controlled circumstances is basically bringing the techniques of the studio into your work space, wherever that might be.
What do you need?
First and foremost, you want good light. Whether you’re taking advantage of the natural light provided by a large window (or even outdoors), or if you’re using artificial lights, aim to capture your products with the best light possible. Regardless of your final approach, the strength of the light, its temperature, and the direction it is traveling all impact the final results.
You need a camera of some kind: if you have something besides your phone then I recommend you use that. However, in most instances these days your phone has a decent camera that can work really well under ideal conditions. Since the goal of a home studio is the creation of ideal conditions, you should be good!
You’ll need space, and the amount of space will depend on your subject matter. For smaller objects the corner of a room or the kitchen table will likely suffice. For larger works you might need an entire wall or room set aside. The space doesn’t have to be dedicated to your home studio — I recommend doing your product photos in batches to work most efficiently. That way, you can store your studio materials and only setup the studio when required.
Get yourself a computer or a really nice tablet. You can likely run your entire operation from a smartphone these days, but even a cheap ChromeBook will make cataloguing your files easier. If you want to establish an online storefront or website, I believe a computer is still necessary.
Finally, get a little notebook. Jot down ideas, or if something works particularly well (like camera settings or a particular bit of good light during a certain part of day) write it down so you can replicate it later.
I mentioned that the most important thing to your product photography is quality light. But what does that mean? Well, like everything else in life, there’s good light and there’s bad light.
Most honest and seasoned photographers will say that there’s no such thing as bad light. For them, it’s true: you can take a good photograph under almost any conditions, if you know what you’re doing and what you hope to accomplish. Our goals are different. We want perfect conditions that we can replicate over and over, so that our products look good consistently when we showcase them in our online stores or in a portfolio.
Now, I could nitpick a little here because the color balance is off a little bit in the above photos, but for the most part these look like there were shot under similar conditions and like the work is all by the same artist. That’s what you can get from consistency. That doesn’t mean you should sacrifice creativity in your shoots for uniformity — quite the contrary. Once you have a good lighting set up, you can use different backgrounds, camera angles, etc to achieve results that are different but not distracting from your overall look.
I selected the above storefront for another reason beyond the consistent look: it’s the quality of the light. Notice there are few reflections on the rings or gemstones. There are shadows under the rings but they’re faint. Everything is lit evenly. That’s your basic photoshoot checklist in a nutshell. You want to see the work your photographing without being distracted by shadows, reflections, or the background. You want the subject to stand out.
These rings were photographed under a diffused light source. You want your light to pass through a something to “soften” it a little bit. The most common, and easiest way to achieve this look, is via the sun: landscape and nature photographers often use clouds during the day to achieve even lighting. The harsh, direct light of the sun is distributed and diffused by cloud cover. In the studio, you can replicate this effect by shooting near a window that has soft white shears. Or, by using a flash/strobe with a light modifier, or by placing your product within a softbox.
One more thing to remember about light is something called white balance. Different light sources emit different wavelengths of light, they have a different “color” to them. The afternoon sun, for example, is very “cool” and has a bluish tint to it. The setting sun of the evening, on the other hand, is “warmer” with more yellow. Fluorescent lights have a different color than most streetlights, etc. What you need to know is this: getting white balance “correct” will make sure your product looks right. Here’s a video that really explains white balance.
Lighting equipment for cameras
If you’re using a camera to photograph, you’re in luck: setting up a small studio has become much easier and a whole lot less expensive in the past few years. Five years ago, buying enough flash units to adequately light a portrait subject or a product shoot would have cost hundreds of dollars. Managing all those flashes with some kind of trigger system would have added hundreds more to that fee. These days, you can buy a 2-unit setup with a wireless trigger for less than $200. If you want a shortcut to a simple but powerful lighting setup, all you need is the following:
- Godox Xpro Wireless Flash Trigger ($69)
- 2 Godox TT600 Flash Speedlites ($65)
- Cable/shutter release (more later)
Also, you may want to diffuse/bounce/otherwise modify the light coming from your flash units. Here’s a handy primer on selecting the right modifier for your needs. I’m a fan of Rogue Lighting, but you should shop around and find something that will meet your needs.
Lighting equipment for phones
Even if you don’t have a camera, you can still replicate many of the features that were once dedicated to them. Ironically, it’s all thanks to Instagram and Snapchat! Selfie culture has exploded, and with it comes the tools you need for great product photography with your phone. There are a number of options, from LED light banks to selfie ring lights to very elaborate systems that let you do lots of different stuff. Those ring lights are likely the best option — they provide smooth, even lighting.
Get yourself some kind of tripod! I’m a fan of MeFoto, and they offer a number of different options from super-lightweight (good for phones/tablets or small cameras) to really sturdy (like the one I use). They also make a great smartphone adapter which lets you easily swap between camera/smartphone in your shooting setup. That said, if all you need is a versatile phone tripod, I like Joby’s GorillaPod, which can be used in so many different ways/situations. You can even find inexpensive options that have built-in remote shooting capabilities!
Speaking of remote triggers, for phones you need a blu-tooth enabled option. This one is less than $10. For cameras, that will depend on your manufacturer and budget. Something simple like a cable release will set you back about $10-15. Wireless options will be double that. Shop around!
Many of you are likely familiar with tabletop lightboxes. If you’re into the DIY movement, here’s a quick tutorial on making your own for less than $10 in materials. I’ll add that the principle should work regardless of the size of the box — so, if you have larger items, get a bigger box! You might need additional/brighter light sources on the outside, but that’s what makes this approach so versatile.
If you want an all-in-one option for shooting smaller products, this is an inexpensive option that should take care of all your needs. I can’t speak to it’s quality or durability, but for the price you should get an idea of how it works and whether it’s a route you want to invest in.
For those of you who are investing in a more traditional studio set up, my No. 1 recommendation is to experiment and see what works. My No. 2 recommendation is that you’ll find a huge wealth of information online, but from an unlikely source: search for information on portrait lighting. Many of the concepts are interchangeable, but for some reason there’s just more written about portrait photography.
Once you’re finished taking the photo, you’re not done! Alas, you still have work to do. Unless you’ve completely nailed your lighting setup, you likely need to so some tweaking after the fact. Regardless of whether you’re working on a computer, tablet or phone there’s options for you.
I use Photoshop/Lightroom for my photo editing needs, supplemented by the NIK collection (for some color depth and black-and-white boosts). Lightroom does a good job of keeping my photo collection organized and categorized, and most of my editing takes place within Lightroom. Photoshop is there for any hardcore photo editing I need.
However, Lightroom is a deep plunge: it’s $10 a month, and has a steep learning curve. There are other options available to you. Google Photos, for example, is a pretty full-fledged service that works on both computers and phones/tablets. It has editing capabilities, and you can create albums and even photo books from within the program. It’s also basically free.
Skylum Lunminar is a standalone program that has a one-time $70 pricetag. It can also be used in tandem with Lightroom, which is nice if you want to go that route. It’s pretty powerful in its own right.
If you do select Lightroom, know that it will sync between your computer and your mobile device. That’s pretty awesome, and one reason why I like the program.
However, there’s a bunch of different options out there for editing photos. My favorite for iOS is Enlight. There’s a lot of good presets included, you can adjust everything you need (exposure, white balance, etc) within the app, and best of all you cna create your own presets.
VSCO is another popular option. Again, lots and lots of presets, though it does have a paid option that contains most of the presets.
Something to consider if you’re getting serious about a studio system is trying before you buy. This might not always be possible, but you’d be surprised at what you can check out before purchasing. I like LensRentals.com and BorrowLenses.com for renting lenses and cameras. It might be worth it to try something for a week to see if it meets your needs.
And here’s a few links I think you’ll find useful:
- Shutterbug’s Posts on Lighting
- Product Photography Lighting and Best Practices
- How to Master Product Photography on a Tight Budget (We Did it With Less Than $50)
- Five Different Setups to Nail A Two Lights Product Shot
Of course, please let me know if you have any questions!