When it comes to product photography, there are more tips and tricks than one person could ever learn in their entire career. In this tutorial, I will show you a few of the ones I have learned along the way, using a minimal amount of gear and materials.
Because I believe there are already far too many, “Lighting your scene with Home Depot Lights” tutorials all over the web, I am going to stick with using actual strobes. Yes, this probably could be done using cheap Home Depot lights and if that’s all you have available, I encourage it. But in this tutorial, I’ll be targeting the beginning photographer who just went out and purchased his first strobes. However, you won’t find any expensive gear in this tutorial. I’ll be using relatively inexpensive gear. Some of the gear listed above is optional (I will make note of those items throughout the tutorial.
Our subject will be three watches. Why? Because jewelry in general is a bit tricky to shoot; the sparkly jewels and shiny metals reflect and bounce light all over the place. Plus, most people have watches or jewelry laying around, so you can join in at home.
Imitation Inspiration is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
My first recommendation is to open up a fashion or clothing magazine (or website) and find yourself an “inspirational photo.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with finding inspiration from other, successful ads, especially when you’re learning. Successfully imitating a great photo is a lot harder than you might think, but it teaches you a lot along the way. Personally, I prefer finding inspiration from printed magazines because I can rip the pages out and tape them to my work area as a reminder of the look that I’m after while I’m doing the shoot.
Environment is Everything
For this particular shot, I wanted a modern, dark, wood-grain look. I remembered seeing cheap little end-tables at Ikea about a week prior to the shoot, so I decided to take a trip back to Ikea to see what I could find. Sure enough, I found the tables again and thought they would be perfect for this assignment.
Two hours later (How anybody gets out of Ikea in a timely manor, I’ll never know!) and I had two tables. You might be thinking to yourself; “You purchased tables for a photography tutorial?!” Certainly! They were only $19 each; that’s far less expensive than any backdrop I’ve ever purchased. And I’m always on the lookout for items that could be used to create a good environment for a product shoot and I’m sure these will be used again.
Lighting is Everything
You’ve probably heard it a thousand times, but lighting really is everything; no matter what you’re shooting. One of my favorite ways to play with light is to cut shapes into poster board and fire a strobe through it to see what kind of patterns I can get. For this particular setup, I knew I would be working in a fairly small space and I wanted to create long shadows and scatter the light a bit; which happens to look really nice on dark wood grain. I simply cut small squares, in a straight line, out of the poster board.
To test it out, I fired the Photogenic strobe, bare bulbed, through the back of the square holes. I played with both the angle of the strobe and the poster board until I was satisfied with the light and shadow areas that it created. It is very important to test each light separately without any of the other strobes firing. This was a step I wished I had learned early on instead of lighting everything up all at once and trying to adjust from there. It’s far easier to both meter and adjust each light separately before taking a final meter reading when you have everything in place.
Next up was my key light, which I setup to camera right. I used the B1600 with a beauty dish and grid, but the B1600 is complete overkill, you could easily get away with a less powerful strobe. As far as the grid goes, think of it like a spotlight, it directs the light to the subject while preventing light from spilling out. That’s actually not the reason I used it for this particular shoot, however. Contrary to what you might think, a grid is not a harsh light even though it is more focused. A grid actually creates nice, diffused light, very much like a softbox. I have grown fond of using grids for all sorts of shoots because they’re easier to setup and take down than a softbox. You simply snap the grid to the strobe or beauty dish. Unlike a softbox, there are no frames or materials to assemble.
Two strobes; one firing through the poster board and one to camera right as key light. I used a gobo (ie, a sheet of poster board, or anything that will shape or prevent light from hitting your subject) to block some of the light coming from the key light to add more shadow area to the scene. My camera was actually directly above the watches, shooting straight down on them. My tripod has a horizontal position that allows you to shoot parallel with the ground.
As you can see, I cut out square holes in the poster board for the rear strobe to fire through. Simple, yet effective for creating uneven, but direct light and shadow areas on the main subjects.
Here, I am testing the shape and direction of the light coming through the poster board.
To power the strobes, I used a Vagabond II unit. However, since this is not a location shoot, a power unit is completely optional. On a side note, power units are general very heavy, so they work excellent as a stabilizing weight when you strap them to your light stands. You can also clearly see the key light with beauty dish and grid in this photo.
To keep the watches in a uniform shape, I used wire that was cut from hangers. I normally use thin metal bands, but I could not find them anywhere and had to improvise.
The wireless RadioPoppers are another bit of optional equipment. If you want to run wirelessly to power your strobes, I can’t recommend this product enough. Yes, I own PocketWizards and have been using them for a decade, but I recently invested in a new mobile lighting kit and, after reading many reviews, settled on the RadioPoppers due to their price and performance. The components you see in this tutorial are all part of my new mobile kit and the RadioPoppers have performed absolutely flawlessly.
My target f-stop for this shoot was somewhere between f11 and f16. I wanted plenty of depth of field to capture both the watches and grain of the table. If you own a light meter, you can dial in your exposure a bit quicker. If you do not own a light meter, you can simply test-fire each strobe, take a look at your camera’s histogram to check for proper exposure, and repeat until you’re satisfied.
With a light meter, you set your desired f-stop and ISO and adjust your lights until those values are reached. I settled on f13 @ 100ISO and 1/50th. Shutter speed was less important since I was on a tripod and using a remote release, which eliminated the possibility of vibrations from depressing the shutter release on the camera itself. If you do not have a remote, just set the camera to timer mode to prevent vibrations from affecting your shot.
I took somewhere between 50 and 60 shots. I adjusted everything from the watches, to the key and back lights, to the poster board and gobo, until I was happy with the shot. This stuff is almost always trial and error until you find something that works as well as you want it to.
Nothing is Ever Perfect
When you’ve shot products for as long as I have, you quickly learn one simple truth: products are rarely perfect. By that I mean that products, no matter how new or fresh out of the package, almost always have defects or little “glitches” that show up in a photograph. When you’re working with small items, like jewelry, this is an even bigger problem because the product is being viewed much larger on screen than if you were viewing it sitting in your hand. When you view small products up close, with a magnifying glass, you’re going to see all kinds of defects show up.
Let’s start off by viewing the original photo, with Aperture adjustments applied. The one, major adjustment I made in Aperture was to desaturate the photo a little. This was a purely personal choice on my part, I thought the watches blended together a bit better after a slight desaturation.
The image above shows my Aperture adjustments. You should be able to find these settings in Lightroom or Camera RAW or whatever other software you’re using.
Obviously, this needed some work. My very first step was photo cleanup. Basically, I used a combination of the spot healing brush and clone tool to clean up specks, dust and other small imperfections. Again, this isn’t a tutorial on how to use Photoshop, so I’m assuming you know your way around it. If not, I’d recommend heading on over to Psdtuts+ as they have some excellent tutorials on using these tools.
Next up was correcting issues with the products themselves. For instance, you’ll notice on the black watch there are portions of the screen that are not displaying the number readout. To correct that, I simply copied a section from one of the numbers that was showing up well, rotated it until it was aligned correctly, and then manually edited it with a combination of the clone tool and brushes from within Photoshop to get them looking just right. I also corrected funky reflections, which are sometimes quicker to take care of in post rather than trying to prevent them in the shoot itself, and fixed other small issues here and there with the watch faces. I could have gone a lot further, but again, the point was to get the product to a presentable state.
Going Back a Step
In the end, I liked having the watches a bit desaturated, but I wanted to add in some color to the fake wood grain. I added a hue/saturation adjustment layer and then used the pen tool to create paths around the watches so that I could mask them out of the hue/saturation adjustment layer. By boosting the saturation, I was able to add in some more red tones to the wood grain.
Again, click the image for a full resolution version of the final result. I think it looks great with the colors of the wood saturated like that.
That’s a Wrap
I hope I was able to provide a sort of boilerplate for getting started on shooting products. I think the most important parts of this lesson are:
- Find inspiration from ads that you admire.
- Don’t focus on the product alone, the environment that you create for your product is just as important as the product itself. I’m a big fan of finding exotic materials, leathers, woods and synthetic materials to create unique backdrops for my products.
- Lighting is everything. Yup, I’m saying it again. Don’t be afraid to spend a good chunk of your day playing around with light, it is what helps define the color, clarity and overall look of your product. Light really is king in photography, get to know it!
- Objects that look great in person rarely look the same in a photograph. Be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to fix those imperfections during the shoot or in a graphic design program in post. There’s no such thing as a flawless product… at least I’ve never seen one!
Finally, just have fun with it! As long as I’ve been doing this, I still look forward to figuring out how to fix a lighting puzzle, or what will work best for a particular product environment.
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I will try my best to answer them.
All photos ©Shane Parker Photography